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Pandemonium overtakes protests in Istanbul

| Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 9:24 p.m.
REUTERS
A protester uses a slingshot to throw stones at riot police during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.
AFP/Getty Images
Ademonstrator looks for help to extinguish his burning clothes on Tuesday, June 11, 2013, during clashes with riot police in Istanbul, Turkey.

ISTANBUL — Turkish riot police engaged in fierce, running battles on Tuesday with pockets of protesters who stormed a central Istanbul square almost two weeks since the start of anti-government demonstrations.

Police fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets at protesters in Taksim Square and protesters hurled rocks and fireworks back at them in some of the worst violence since the demonstrations began.

The crowd included people in office clothes gathered after work and families with children, as well as youths in masks who had fought skirmishes throughout the day.

Clouds of choking tear gas sent them scattering into side streets. Staff in surrounding hotels raised shutters just enough to allow people to crawl inside for shelter, as water cannons swept across the square targeting stone-throwing youths.

The fierce crackdown on the initial protests against the planned redevelopment of Gezi Park, a leafy corner of Taksim, drew international condemnation and calls for restraint. The latest police move occurred a day after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has dismissed the demonstrators as “riff-raff,” agreed to meet protest leaders on Wednesday.

“There's no room for dialogue when there's ongoing violence,” said Mucella Yapici of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, a core group behind the Gezi Park campaign.

Chanting gangs of hard-core demonstrators taunted police in the narrow lanes leading down to the Bosphorus waterway late into the night, drawing more tear gas and spray from water cannons. Municipal workers used bulldozers to remove the remains of vandalized vehicles and clear the square.

Erdogan earlier called on protesters to stay out of Taksim, where a heavy-handed police crackdown on a rally against development of Gezi Park triggered the unprecedented wave of protest in cities across Turkey.

Gezi Park has been turned into a ramshackle settlement of tents by leftists, environmentalists, liberals, students and professionals who see the development plan as symptomatic of an overbearing government.

The authorities have said that legitimate protesters in the park will be allowed to stay, for now, and they remained camped out.

The protests, during which demonstrators have used fireworks and gas bombs, have posed a stark challenge to Erdogan's authority and divided the country. Erdogan, who denies accusations of authoritarian behavior, said he would not yield.

“They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen here? Were we going to kneel down in front of these (people)?” Erdogan said as action to clear the square began.

“If you call this roughness, I'm sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won't change,” he told a meeting of his AK party's parliamentary group.

Western powers have voiced concern about the troubles in an important NATO ally bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran. The United States in the past has pointed to Erdogan's Turkey as an Islamic democracy that could be emulated elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We continue to follow events in Turkey with concern, and our interest remains supporting freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest,” White House spokesman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement in Washington.

The victor in three consecutive elections, Erdogan says the protests are engineered by vandals, terrorist elements and unnamed foreign forces. His critics, who say conservative religious elements have won out over centrists in the AK Party, accuse him of inflaming the crisis with unyielding talk.

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