By Elena Becatoros and Suzan Fraser Associated Press
ISTANBUL — Riot police firing tear gas and water cannons repelled thousands of anti-government protesters attempting to converge on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Sunday, unbowed even as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended his crackdown at a rally of his supporters.
A day after police quashed an 18-day sit-in at the square’s Gezi Park, Erdogan spoke to hundreds of thousands of his supporters on one side of Turkey’s largest city, and throngs of protesters angrily tried to regroup and reclaim Taksim. The square had become the symbolic center of defiance against Erdogan’s government.
The contrast between the two events highlighted growing divisions in Turkish society, which many say have been exacerbated by Erdogan’s fiery rhetoric as he faced down the most widespread protests in his 10-year tenure.
Although they have dented his international image and angered many at home, the protests are unlikely to prove a significant challenge to his government. He was elected with 50 percent of the vote just two years ago.
Labor unions called for a one-day strike that would include doctors, lawyers, engineers and civil servants in support of the protesters. Strikes, however, often have little visible impact on daily life in Turkey.
Police may have won the day Saturday by recouping control of the park, sending thousands of protesters scurrying under a barrage of tear gas. But as night fell Sunday, demonstrators continued their day-long quest to reach Taksim Square, and protests emerged in other cities.
In some Istanbul neighborhoods, stone-throwing youths erected barricades and faced off against riot police, raising the prospect that the decision to launch the police sweep against Gezi Park may have done more to fan unrest than to end it.
The Dogan news agency said Sunday that dozens of protesters had been detained in Istanbul and around 70 in Ankara, the capital.
On orders from his Islamic-rooted, conservative government, hundreds of riot police swept through what had become a colorful tent city in Gezi Park Saturday evening, spraying protesters with water cannon and firing tear gas as protesters fled.
Erdogan defended his decision in a thunderous speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters in western Istanbul Sunday afternoon, saying the instructions had been part of his “duty” as prime minister — to ensure the rule of law after protesters defied his efforts to negotiate a way out of the standoff.
Nationwide protests erupted May 31 after a violent police crackdown against peaceful activists staging an initial sit-in to protest government plans to rip down Gezi Park’s trees and erect a replica Ottoman-era barracks. The protests quickly spiraled into a widespread denunciation of what many say is Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian way of governing — charges he vehemently denies.
The protests have left at least five people dead, including a police officer, according to a Turkish rights group, and more than 5,000 injured.
Unrelenting, a spokesman for one of the protesters’ groups vowed that they would eventually retake Gezi Park.
“We will win Taksim Square again and we will win Taksim Gezi Park again,” Alican Elagoz said.
In his nearly two-hour speech, Erdogan took aim at foreign media coverage — citing three English-language news outlets by name — and European Union criticism of his government’s handling of protests that have dented his international image, despite Turkey’s recent economic success. He said he’d tried to negotiate an exit from the standoff and noted that he had invited delegates from the sit-in to meet with him, and “listened to them one-by-one.”
“They say, `Mr. prime minister, you are too harsh,’ and some (call me) `dictator.’ What kind of a dictator meets with people who occupy Gezi Park as well as the sincere environmentalists?” he questioned, as the crowd unfurled a giant-sized banner with his photo over their heads.
Referring to himself, he said: “We are the servant of the people.”
As he spoke, riot police maintained a cordon around Gezi Park and Taksim Square to block access, and individual passers-by were subject to identity checks and bag searches. In Ankara, cries of “Resign!” echoed among hundreds of demonstrators at Kugulu park, a hub of sympathy protests that have taken place in varying sizes since the showdown began.
Speaking at the rally of political supporters, originally billed as meeting to drum up early support for local elections next March, Erdogan said that in clearing Gezi Park, “I did my duty as prime minister. Otherwise there would be no point in my being in office.”
In a potentially worrying development suggestive of a possible escalation in the violence, Erdogan said two police officers had been injured by bullets fired during the overnight unrest: “(One) was shot with a bullet in the stomach, the other was shot in the leg.”
On Sunday, TV footage showed police detaining white-jacketed medical personnel who had been helping treat injured protesters, leading them away with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
Istanbul Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu denied they were medical staff: “They wore doctors’ white coats but had nothing to do with medicine or health. In fact, one of them had seven separate criminal records for theft,” he said on his Twitter account, contradicting earlier comments in which he had said several doctors had been detained.
He insisted authorities had “respect” for those in the medical profession, “but if there are those who enter the protests, and who act alongside the protesters, then action is taken.”
Volunteer medics and medical students had set up an infirmary in Gezi Park during the occupation, to treat protesters injured during earlier days of clashes with police.
In Ankara, police firing water cannon, rubber bullets and tear gas at central Kizilay Square to disperse protesters. Hundreds had tried to hold a memorial ceremony there for a protester who died of injuries sustained in a nearby police crackdown on June 1.
As water cannon trucks sped into the square, four men ripped off Turkish flags dangling off the sides of some vehicles. One of the men kissed the flag he had taken, clutched it to his breast, and then wheeled around to shake a fist at the truck’s crew, shouting: “You don’t deserve this!”