Turkish police begin to clear Istanbul’s Taksim Square

Police sealed Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Sunday, a day after they cleared it in a tear-gas-filled conclusion to two weeks of anti-government protests in Turkey. Clashes between protesters and the police lasted far into the night around Istanbul and the country, as confrontation prevailed over a compromise that had briefly seemed attainable only hours earlier.

The storming of Taksim Square and adjoining Gezi Park inflamed opposition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose 10-year rule has been challenged as never before by the demonstrations in dozens of cities across the country. Protesters called Sunday for renewed efforts to march back into the center of Istanbul and also to confront police in their own neighborhoods. Erdogan was also planning a rally on Istanbul’s outskirts later in the day, raising the possibility of direct fights between sides in a city of 13 million.

Police confronted protesters across Istanbul into the night, using clouds of tear gas and water cannons on crowds as they chased thousands of people out of Istanbul’s center. Authorities shut down ferry and subway service in an apparent effort to limit attempts to make it back to Taksim Square, and service was still restricted on Sunday. Authorities reported that 44 people had been wounded as of early Sunday morning, although an opposition parliamentarian said on Twitter that the number topped 100.

Protest leaders said that Erdogan had destroyed his chances for a dialogue. Erdogan had invited a delegation of protesters into his Ankara home Friday and made concessions substantial enough that some organizers appeared to be considering standing down Saturday and leaving only a symbolic tent behind. But on Sunday, protesters were defiant even after having lost the physical emblem of their movement.

“More people will gather on the streets now,” Eyup Muhcu, one of the protest leaders who met Friday with Erdogan, said by telephone. “We had reached a great chance for dialogue. Now after this violence, he will never find a party to talk to.”

On Sunday, two of the largest unions in Turkey were discussing a general strike. The Carsi soccer fan club, which had participated in the protests, said on Twitter that police were coming to some members’ homes and detaining them.

And there were reports in local media, including videos, of at least two military vehicles alongside the police vehicles clearing protesters from Taksim Square on Saturday. With Turkey’s history of military coups during periods of civil unrest, the apparent coordination between the civilian government and the military was a sign that Erdogan retained control over the armed forces.

Within an hour of a warning from Erdogan that central Istanbul would be cleared by Sunday whether or not protesters left voluntarily, security forces using loudspeakers told people in Taksim and Gezi Park to leave. Hundreds of black-clad riot police wearing gas masks started to rush the park, using tear gas and water cannons to chase protesters from the area. Remaining was a mess of soggy tents, banners and debris that sanitation workers quickly moved to clear. The park had turned into a symbol of defiance against Erdogan, who wants to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks on the site.

The assault on protesters came hours after Erdogan gave a fiery speech in Ankara to tens of thousands of cheering supporters.

“I am putting it very clearly: Taksim Square is vacated or else. If not, this country’s security forces know how to vacate,” Erdogan said.

On Istiklal Street — or Freedom Street — a grand pedestrian boulevard that leads into the square, crowds of protesters confronted a line of police three deep before they, too, were pushed back. One man ran toward the police with a red banner of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. He was beaten back with a sharp blast of water from a truck-mounted water cannon. His banner was quickly blown off its pole.

“Yes, I am afraid right now,” said Pinar Yuksel, 43, a choir director who was standing in packed Istiklal Street, just yards from the police battalion. “But I will stay here because I love my country.”

Inside the park, security forces were using excavators and bulldozers to clear away an encampment where just hours earlier protesters had been listening to a concert of folk music from Turkey’s revolutionary era. Dozens of sanitation workers put debris into a front-end bucket loader.

On Sunday, Taksim Square was deserted except for police and sanitation workers. Some workers were planting flowers and laying fresh sod around a monument of Ataturk that days earlier had been covered in revolutionary banners. Lines of plainclothes police carrying long batons prevented onlookers from entering the square. One man on a scooter attempted to break the line, but he was kicked off his vehicle, sending it spinning.

“The state will have to consider everyone who remains [in Taksim] a supporter or member of a terrorist organization,” said E.U. Minister Egemen Bagis on Haber TV late Saturday.

“The park belongs to all Istanbul’s people,” Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said on Haber Turk TV after Taksim Square and Gezi Park were cleared. “There’s a limit to patience.”

Earlier Saturday, those in Gezi Park appeared to be taking small steps toward compromise. Organized political groups and unions had decided to unite their previously fractured demands under the banner of a single umbrella group, called Taksim Solidarity, and to try to open the park to ordinary Istanbul residents, as well. They cleared away many of the barricades of debris that they had placed at park entrances to protect themselves from police. Some demonstrators said it was only a matter of time before the protests quieted.

Erdogan on Friday offered protesters the outline of a plan to quell the demonstrations. He announced that he would not push forward with the demolition of Gezi Park while a court reviewed the legality of the plans. And even if the court approved his efforts, Erdogan said he would put the choice to a referendum in Istanbul.

The status of that offer was unclear on Sunday. But many protesters had rejected it a day earlier, saying that their demands had long ago moved beyond the survival of the park and were instead about basic freedoms under what they think is an increasingly authoritarian conservative Islamist rule.

“It’s more than Gezi. This is an explosion of what people have accumulated against the government for 10 years,” said Ozlem Deneri, 28, a managerial assistant who was sipping tea in Gezi Park hours before the police invaded. “It has started from one tree and spread to the whole nation,” she said.

Erdogan remains tremendously popular in a country that awarded his Justice and Development Party 50 percent of the vote in the 2011 general elections. Many praise his efforts to rid Turkey of the threat of military coups and to liberalize rules against religious practice that had long discriminated against practitioners of conservative Islam, such as women who wear head scarves.

But even many of his supporters have criticized police violence over the past two weeks. And among the other 50 percent of the population — the many people who flocked to squares and public places in dozens of cities across Turkey in the past two weeks — many complained of efforts to impose what they said was a conservative Islamic lifestyle that they did not desire. In recent months, Erdogan has pushed to restrict alcohol consumption and constrict access to abortions. He has also urged newlyweds to have at least three children.

Asli Sozbilir contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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