ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish riot police used tear gas and water cannon Friday to end a peaceful sit-in by hundreds of people trying to prevent trees from being uprooted in an Istanbul park. The dawn raid ignited a furious anti-government protest that took over the city’s main square and spread to other cities.
In a victory for the protesters, an Istanbul court later ordered the temporary suspension of the project to uproot the trees. But demonstrators around the country kept up protests denouncing what they called a heavy-handed crackdown and a government seen as displaying increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Police took action on the fourth day of the sit-in against a government plan to revamp Taksim square. Officers clashed with angry demonstrators in surrounding areas, firing tear gas canisters and pushing people back with water cannon. A cloud of smoke from the gas filled the square and scattered protests continued into the night.
In solidarity with protesters in Istanbul, some 5,000 people gathered at a park in the capital, Ankara, swelling into a busy street nearby. They chanted anti-government slogans and called on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign. Police used tear gas to push back a group that tried to march toward the Parliament building.
Protests were also held in a dozen other cities, including one that drew thousands in the third-largest city of Izmir, reports said.
The Istanbul protesters were demanding the square’s Gezi Park be protected from plans that include the construction of a shopping mall. Many also aired grievances against Erdogan, whose style has become increasingly uncompromising during his government’s third successive term.
Last week, the government enacted a law restricting the sale and advertising of alcohol, a move that has alarmed secular Turks.
Earlier this week, the government went ahead with a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of a disputed third bridge across the Bosporus Strait that some say will destroy the few remaining green areas of the sprawling city. It also named the bridge after a controversial Ottoman sultan believed to have ordered a massacre of a minority Shiite Muslim group, instead of choosing a more unifying figure.
Protesters in Gezi Park held up a large poster Friday with a caricature depicting Erdogan as an Ottoman sultan with a caption that read: “The people won’t yield to you.”
Protester Serdar Sanman accused Erdogan of “trying to install his dictatorship.”
Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted, conservative government has a strong support base in the mainly Muslim but secular country, and many of the protesters appeared to be from more secular-leaning sections of society.
In Ankara, demonstrators held up posters reading: “Don’t Interfere in my Lifestyle” and “Resist the Dictator.” Many drank beer and other alcoholic beverages during the protest in defiance of the alcohol restrictions, raising their drinks as they chanted “Cheers Tayyip!” They lined the pavement with empty beer and liquor bottles and cans.
Erdogan this week dismissed the Istanbul protesters’ demands, saying the government would go ahead with the renovation plans “no matter what they do.” The forestry minister said more trees would be planted than those uprooted at Gezi.
The dawn raid was the latest in a series of aggressive crackdown on protests. Human rights activists frequently accuse Turkish police of using inordinate force to break up protests and of excessively using tear gas and pepper spray against protesters.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said that authorities would investigate the reports of disproportionate use of force. Still, he defended the crackdown, saying officers were carrying out their duties against an illegal occupation of the park.
In Istanbul, several protesters were injured when a wall they climbed on collapsed during a police chase, and at least two people — including a journalist — were hit in the head by tear gas canisters. Two opposition legislators were among several hospitalized after being affected by the gas, the private Dogan news agency reported.
Istanbul Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu said 12 people were treated in hospitals for injuries and least 13 people were detained.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was concerned about the number of people injured as police dispersed protesters.
“We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing,” she told reporters. “These freedoms are crucial to any healthy democracy.”
Psaki said the U.S. was still gathering information about the incident.
There was very little coverage of the protests on television channels in Turkey, reflecting the environment of self-censorship by the media, which has, among other things, been pressured into dismissing staff too critical of the government.
The media rights group Reporters without Borders said the injured journalist, Ahmet Sik, and others were deliberately targeted by police and urged Turkish authorities to halt the “excessive” use of force. A Reuters photographer was also injured.
Amnesty International also deplored what it called Turkish police brutality and said some officers should be brought to justice.
Demonstrators affected by tear gas sought shelter at a luxury hotel at Taksim and were tended by guests. Police removed tents and the demonstrators’ belongings and mounted barricades around the park.
The state-run Anadolu Agency said 15 demonstrators were detained in Ankara.
“The people are demonstrating against the government’s intolerance toward demonstrations,” said Metin Feyzioglu, who heads Turkey’s lawyers’ association, during the protest in Ankara. “The government must display understanding and immediately stop the violence against the demonstrators.”
Fraser reported from Ankara.