Friday 22 September 2017

Turkish protesters prepare for fresh clashes with police

Richard Hall Istanbul

Protesters in Istanbul's Taksim Square were preparing for further clashes with police last night as a leading rights group criticised an "unprecedented" use of violence by security forces.

An uneasy calm was present throughout the day in the square and in Gezi Park, where the demonstrations began more than two weeks ago over the government's proposed redevelopment of the area.

Activists in the park itself were stockpiling face masks and goggles to protect against tear gas, and rebuilding barricades that had been destroyed by the authorities overnight. A few hundred police were gathered in groups around the square with mobile water cannon standing nearby.

Yesterday doctors claimed that around 1,000 people were injured in clashes after police moved in to clear the square on Tuesday afternoon, firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. The operation continued into the early hours of the morning, both in the park and in the side streets surrounding the square, as a small number of protesters responded with fireworks.

'UNPRECEDENTED'

Amnesty International yesterday criticised the use of excessive violence by police overnight, and blamed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for inciting the protesters.

"Never has there been a time when police violence was this widespread and this sustained. It is unprecedented," Andrew Gardner, the group's Turkey researcher, said.

"Police have been using tear gas as a punitive measure, rather than for crowd dispersal as it is intended. There have been cases where police are firing directly at protesters, causing serious head injuries. They are also firing tear gas into buildings, which can be very dangerous.

"The violence we saw was a direct result of inflammatory statements made by (the prime minister)," he added.

On Tuesday, Mr Erdogan warned that he would "be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists, and no one will get away with it".

The protests in Istanbul and other cities across Turkey started as a small demonstration against plans to build an Ottoman-style shopping centre in Taksim Square, but have grown into a wider movement uniting those opposed to what they perceive as Mr Erdogan's authoritarian rule. Many of the protesters also share a concern that he is imposing an Islamist agenda on a country that has traditionally been secular, despite most of its citizens being Muslim.

Mr Erdogan yesterday made his first conciliatory moves since the protests began, meeting representatives of groups opposed to Gezi Park's redevelopment. But members of the Taksim Solidarity campaign group said the 11-person delegation chosen to meet him was not representative of the protesters. Last night a spokesman for the prime minister's AK Party also said the government may consider a referendum on the fate of Gezi Park.

But while Mr Erdogan appears to be searching for a solution, the protest movement has been strengthened by public anger at the police's violent attempts to crush it.

In a makeshift hospital in the north corner of the park yesterday afternoon, doctors reported seeing wounds caused by rubber and plastic bullets, head injuries as a result of tear gas canisters being fired directly at protesters, and severe breathing difficulties caused by the gas itself. (© Independent News Service)

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