Eyewitness: In Taksim Square, tear gas and bulldozers just add fuel to Turkish protesters' ire

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Turks demonstrating in Istanbul tell Richard Hall that the brutal police tactics expose a dictatorship at work

Istanbul

No sooner had Pinar Gulec, a 31-year-old tax auditor, finished admonishing Turkey's Prime Minister for behaving like a dictator than Istanbul's Taksim Square filled with tear gas.

As smoke rained down on the square, which has become the centre of protests against the authoritarian leadership style of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the thousands that had gathered there at dusk – Ms Gulec among them – were sent diving into side streets with their eyes watering.

Police stormed the square and fought running battles with protesters who responded with fireworks. Skirmishes continued late into the evening as police used water cannon and further volleys of tear gas.

Later, fires were lit as protesters returned to the square chanting: "Everywhere is Taksim. Everywhere is resistance."

Tonight, Human Rights Watch said one man was in intensive care with a serious brain injury, while about 15 others had been admitted for gas inhalation.

The central square had been cleared once already during the day. Police in armoured vehicles entered it soon after dawn, demanding via loudspeakers that the hundreds of protesters gathered there should leave, before firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon into the crowd.

Bulldozers then moved in to clear the protesters' barricades and police removed huge banners hung from a building overlooking the square, replacing them with a Turkish flag and a picture of the founder of the Turkish secular state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Today's gathering followed two weeks of similar demonstrations that have shown little sign of abating.

What began in the last week of May as a small, peaceful protest against the redevelopment of Gezi Park, a green space in the square, has spiralled into a larger movement uniting those dissatisfied with Mr Erdogan's rule.

Many have expressed concern over what they perceive as an attack on their secular lifestyles, and accuse Mr Erdogan's government of imposing an Islamist agenda on the country.

A recent law passed by the Turkish government tightened restrictions on alcohol, including banning sales after 10pm.

Before the gas cleared the square for the second time, those protesting there cited the reaction of Mr Erdogan's government to the demonstrations as their reason for being there.

"In my opinion, he is a dictator," said Pinar Gulec as she stood in the centre of the square. "This is a democracy; he can't just do what he wants.

"We are angry at the Prime Minister. Every time he speaks he makes people angrier. I think he needs to compromise but I can't see it happening.

Others accused Mr Erdogan of fanning the flames in Taksim Square with his uncompromising position towards the demonstrations.

The Prime Minister had previously referred to protesters as "looters" and "extremists" and threatened to call his own supporters – the 50 per cent of voters who elected his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) – to the streets.

In a more conciliatory move, Mr Erdogan has offered to meet representatives of the protesters today. A group representing the original protesters met the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc last week to present a series of demands, which included the outlawing of police use of tear gas.

However, despite such moves, demonstrators at Taksim Square accused Mr Erdogan of trying to divide Turkey in two in order to shore up his own support.

"We hadn't had any major objections from the public until Mr Erdogan started talking about his 50 per cent. All he has done is to create more tension," said Sedat Kapanoglu, the founder of a popular social media site in Turkey.

"Mr Erdogan needs to adjust his attitude towards the public. He needs to listen to the other half of the country, not just his supporters," he added.

The Turkish Human Rights Foundation says four people have been killed during the protests, including one policeman.

Some 5,000 protesters have been treated for injuries or the effects of tear gas, while officials say 600 police have also been injured.

Far from quelling the protests, the harsh crackdown by security forces on the gatherings in Taksim has galvanised those who might have otherwise stayed away.

Ozlem, a 31-year-old protester who was caught in the tear gas this evening, is one of them.

"I just came to protest against the violence. But this has turned into a protest against power, specifically the power of the Prime Minister."

"Most of the people here are white-collar workers – bankers, teachers and so on. A lot of us were here on our first protest on Friday; we didn't know what to do," she said. "I am a little scared of this sort of thing. But now at least we are educated."

Timeline: Turkish protests

December 2012 Petition raised by group of environmental activists against plans to build a commercial complex in Taksim Square.

27 May 2013 Around 50 activists camp out at Taksim Square. Bulldozers due to arrive the following morning.

28 May Police move in to clear the square, but protesters stand fast.

30-31 May Police use water cannons and tear gas to disperse demonstrators. Over 100 people are injured and 60 detained. Tens of thousands join protests across other towns and cities.

1 June Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a defiant televised speech condemning the protesters.

3 June A 20-year-old protester is killed, hit by a taxi which rammed demonstrators. Three others have died since. Unions call a general strike in response to "state terrorism".

4 June Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc calls the police crackdown "wrong and unjust" and offers talks with protesters.

5 June Cyber-crime unit of police raid 38 locations and arrest 24 people accused of using Twitter to encourage others to protest.

6 June Erdogan addresses crowd of 10,000 supporters, who chant: "We will die for you, Erdogan."

11 June Police re-enter Taksim Square and clear it.

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