We've finally cleared protest park, Turkish riot cops claim
Turkish riot police firing tear gas and water cannons took less than half an hour last night to bring to an end an 18-day occupation of an Istanbul park at the centre of the strongest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 10-year rule.
The sweep by white-helmeted riot police emptied Gezi Park of protesters, leaving a series of colourful, abandoned tents behind. Bulldozers moved in afterward, scooping up debris as crews of workmen tore down the tents. Protesters put up little physical resistance, even as plain-clothes police shoved many of them to drive them from the park.
White smoke billowed skyward as a phalanx of riot police marched inside the park on Saturday. They tore down protesters' banners, toppled a communal food stall, and sprayed tear gas over the tents and urging those inside to get out.
For over two weeks, protesters had defied Erdogan's warnings to vacate the area.
Tayfun Kahraman, a member of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protest movements, said an untold number of people in the park had been injured – some from rubber bullets.
"Let them keep the park, we don't care anymore. Let it all be theirs. This crackdown has to stop. The people are in a terrible state," he told reporters.
A brutal police intervention on May 31 against those protesting plans to redevelop the square and the park had sparked the biggest anti-government protests in Turkey in decades and dented Erdogan's international reputation.
The protests, which at one point spread to dozens of Turkish cities and towns, turned into a much broader expression of discontent about Erdogan's government, and what many say is his increasingly authoritarian decision-making.
Erdogan, who was elected with 50 per cent of the vote for his third term in 2011, vehemently rejects the accusations by protesters and points to his strong support base.
As they entered the park yesterday, police shouted to the protesters: "This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you – evacuate."
Shortly before the police launched their operation, Erdogan had threatened protesters in a boisterous speech in a suburb of the capital, Ankara, that is a stronghold of his Justice and Development Party.
"I say this very clearly: either Taksim Square is cleared, or if it isn't cleared then the security forces of this country will know how to clear it," Erdogan said.
A second pro-government rally is planned for today in Istanbul.