Riot police use a water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters at Istanbul's… (Ozan Kose / Agence France-Presse…)
ISTANBUL, Turkey – Hundreds of riot police surrounded a park in central Istanbul on Saturday, firing tear gas and water cannons in a renewed push by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to restore order after two weeks of demonstrations that have exasperated his government and exposed the country's deepening political divide.
Police forces surrounded Gezi Park shortly before nightfall. They moved beneath sycamore trees toward tents and crowds of hundreds of protesters. Some demonstrators reportedly threw rocks but the dissidents appeared to be overwhelmed by security forces, whose lines spread into adjoining Taksim Square.
Ambulances arrived outside the park as tear gas enveloped the trees. Turkey’s NTV television reported that police shouted at protesters: "This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you — evacuate."
Earlier in the day, Erdogan, angry that protesters did not leave the park after negotiations with him to end the stand-off Friday, told his supporters: “I say it clearly: Taksim Square must be evacuated, otherwise this country's security forces know how to evacuate it."
The protesters had vowed during the day to continue their occupation of the park, spurning government calls for them to pack up and end two weeks of demonstrations.
“The government has ignored clear and rightful demands since the beginning of the resistance. They tried to divide, provoke and damage our legitimacy,” the Taksim Solidarity, a leading protest group, said in a statement. “This is just the beginning, resistance will continue.”
The fresh clashes came despite negotiations between protesters and Erdogan late Thursday and early Friday that yielded an agreement to freeze a development planned for the park pending resolution of outstanding legal issues and a referendum on the project.
Throughout Friday and Saturday, there was little suggestion that protesters would leave Gezi Park. They number in the hundreds, drinking, dancing and eating. Government officials had hoped that by freezing construction, they could convince protesters to disperse.
Erdogan had surrounded the park with busloads of police on Thursday, raising prospects of the fresh police raid to come. The Turkish Medical Assn. said four people have been killed with more than 5,000 injured since protests began two weeks ago.
The demonstrators distrust Erdogan, whom they believe should adopt a more inclusive approach to decision-making, while fearing his increasingly conservative policies are part of an attack on Turkey’s secular identity.
“We are going through a period in which the rights of people, including right to life, are trodden,” Taksim Solidarity said.
Taksim Solidarity again called for the government to investigate accusations of police brutality during the protests.
“We repeat that no serious legal action has yet been taken against those who perpetrated and oversaw the actions that lead to the killing of our friends, and … we will make sure those who are responsible for the violence are brought to justice.”
Government officials had repeatedly called on demonstrators to leave the park. The protests have cast international attention on Turkey – during Erdogan’s decade in power, viewed as a model of sound Islamic-inspired governance – scaring tourists away and causing jitters on the stock market.
In Ankara, Erdogan had attended a rally of AKP party faithful earlier Saturday and had called the protests part of a conspiracy of foreigners and shady underground organizations seeking to destabilize the country, the Today's Zaman newspaper reported.
"You saw the plot that was being carried out, the trap being set," local media reported Erdogan as saying. "You are here, and you are spoiling the treacherous plot, the treacherous attack!"