June 1, 2013
Turkish police have begun to retreat from Istanbul’s famed Taksim Square, where protesters and police clashed Saturday for a second day over the commercial development of a city park.
Witnesses say thousands of demonstrators flooded the site as police lifted barricades around the park.
The withdrawal came as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to press ahead with the Taksim redevelopment project and called for demonstrators to end their protests. He also said allegations of excessive police use of tear gas will be investigated.
On Saturday, police battled thousands of protesters in Istanbul, where a sit-in against development of the park erupted into anti-government protests across the country. Dozens of people in Istanbul have been injured.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up a peaceful rally Friday at Taksim Square, which has long been at the heart of political and other protests. In solidarity with the Istanbul demonstrators, protests also broke out in the capital, Ankara, and many other Turkish cities, where protesters have battled with police and chanted slogans against Erdogan’s government.
Analysts say the unrest signifies growing discontent over the policies of the Islamist-dominated government, which some accuse of becoming increasingly authoritarian.
But Mine Eder, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, says she would not necessarily characterize the protesters as secular. She tells VOA the movement is drawing from a broad range of the Turkish population.
“I think is sort of a spontaneous civil movement that started with the ownership of the trees and sort of turned into this ‘We’ve had enough with this government and with this style of governance and with the unwillingness of the government to listen to us,'” she said.
Eder says many were frustrated at a perceived decline in freedom of expression following a series of harsh police crackdowns on protests, including at this year’s May Day rally. Others, she says, were frustrated at high unemployment rates.
She says the government’s firm response shows it is concerned that the protests could spiral out of control, potentially challenging its rule.
Rights groups have already expressed concern at the authorities’ use of force in dealing with the protests. Amnesty International said Friday that the Turkish authorities should “stop using excessive force against peaceful protesters” and called for an investigation. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington believes Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler on Friday said the government will look into the claims that police used disproportionate force.
Protesters were initially upset at the proposed development at Istanbul’s Gezi Park, next to the square, which they say is one of the few remaining green spots in that part of the city. The park faces demolition to make way for the construction of a shopping center.