Turkey struggles to quell violence as riots spread
Government's crackdown on protest prompts mass demonstrations across the country
TURKEY'S prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is facing the biggest challenge to his 10-year rule this weekend as parts of Istanbul have been turned into a war zone.
Violent clashes took place between riot police and tens of thousands of demonstrators outraged at the heavy-handed response to an environmental protest on Friday.
The eruption of frustration with Erdogan's government spread to a dozen other Turkish cities and supporters gathered worldwide in Boston, London, Barcelona and Amsterdam to voice solidarity with the protesters.
The violence in Turkey prompted a warning from the Department of Foreign Affairs that Irish tourists should exercise caution and avoid all demonstrations, while the UK Foreign Office warned Britons to stay away from trouble spots.
The original protest was aimed at saving a city-centre park in Istanbul from shopping centre developers, who had been backed by the government. But it rapidly snowballed into a national display of anger at the perceived arrogance of the country's rulers.
While the ferocity of Friday's police crackdown attracted worldwide headlines, the mass protests against the government went largely unreported on the main Turkish TV channels and government-supporting newspapers.
Mr Erdogan, who is usually quick to respond to major events, also remained silent until yesterday, when he delivered a lengthy address on television. Calling for an immediate end to the protests, he pledged that the government would press ahead with the construction of the controversial shopping centre.
"Police were there yesterday, they'll be on duty today and also tomorrow because Taksim Square cannot be an area where extremists are running wild," Mr Erdogan said.
"If this is about staging a protest, about a social movement, I would manage to gather 200,000 where they gather 20, and where they gather 100,000, I would gather one million party supporters. Let's not go down that road."
Sirri Sureyya Onder, an MP from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), who was injured by a teargas cartridge yesterday, said the government had gone too far in its crackdown on peaceful protesters.
"They are rebelling against all of this now. People are fed up with this lack of public discussion, with the disrespect, the immoderateness, the lawlessness and the authoritarianism of this government."
The lack of media coverage has further inflamed tension on the streets.
Yesterday, many shop owners, hotels and residents of Istanbul's Beyoglu district showed solidarity with protesters, handing out water and offering shelter to those fleeing the police raids. Volunteer doctors and medical students set up makeshift clinics.
A room in the Istanbul Chamber of Mechanical Engineers was transformed into an impromptu clinic. Up to 15 doctors have been treating victims of teargas and police violence since Friday night.
Hundreds have sustained injuries over the past two days, some serious, with at least three people said to be in critical condition. Human Rights Watch confirmed that one 23-year-old student lost an eye after being hit with a plastic bullet by police.
"This excessive violence once again shows that this government is intolerant of dissent and restrictive of dissent," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But this is a new low, even for Turkey."
The US has expressed concern over the way Turkey is handling the situation and the UK consulate in Istanbul took the unusual step of publicly rebuking the government for over-reacting after a teargas canister landed in the consulate gardens.
Early yesterday evening, police eventually withdrew from the Istanbul's central Taksim Square. Last night thousands of protesters marched to Taksim Square and Gezi Park.
"All opposition groups are coming together to protest against this deeply undemocratic government," said Ramazan Gulen, 31. "Turks, Kurds, leftists, nationalists, religious groups – even the supporters of all three Istanbul football clubs stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of such violence. We are all here to say enough is enough."
Last week, new curbs on alcohol consumption were introduced, along with warnings over public kissing and displays of affection.
"Our government actively supports the Syrian opposition, and they constantly call for more democratic rights in Syria. But look what they do to those who oppose their own ideas and policies – they try to shut us up with teargas and violence," said Nejla Gulten, a 32-year-old sociologist.