ISTANBUL – Turkish police retreated from a main Istanbul square Saturday, removing barricades and allowing in thousands of demonstrators in a move to calm tensions after furious anti-government protests turned the city center into a battlefield.
A second day of national protests over a violent police raid of an anti-development sit-in in Taksim square has revealed the depths of anger against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many Turks view him as increasingly authoritarian and dismissive of opposing views.
Even as he appeared to relent to demonstrators by pulling back police and offering some concessions, Erdogan remained defiant, insisting that the demonstrations were illegitimate and promising to move ahead with redevelopment of the square. He challenged protesters that he could easily summon a million people for a pro-government rally.
A human rights group said hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police that lasted through the night. As police retreated Saturday, some protesters hurled objects at officers and police vehicles, prompting police to fire several rounds of tear gas, the private Dogan news agency reported. The state-run Anadolu Agency said protesters threw fireworks at police.
Police also withdrew from a protest in Ankara, the capital.
At Taksim, protesters chanted anti-government protests — including “Tayyip resign!” Turkish celebrities also joined the crowds, with thousands milling around the square, waving flags, and cheering and clapping at anti-government speeches.
Protesters who had camped out at Taksim were angry over the planned removal of trees in the square, one of the few bits of green in sprawling Istanbul. Officials are planning to build a shopping mall and rebuild a former Ottoman army barracks.
Under Erdogan’s leadership in the past decade, Turkey has boosted economic growth and raised its international profile. Though widely supported by rural and conservative religious Muslims, he remains a divisive figure in mainly secular circles and is criticized for his often abrasive style.
In a surprise move last week, the government quickly passed legislation curbing the sale and advertising of alcoholic drinks, alarming secularists. Many felt insulted when he defended the legislation by calling people who drink “alcoholics.”
The protest was also seen as a demonstration of the anger building toward Turkish police, who have been accused of using inordinate force to quash demonstrations and of using tear gas excessively.
In another gesture to placate protesters, Erdogan said that police may have used tear gas excessively while confronting protesters. The Interior Ministry said police officers who abused their power would be punished.
Despite statements of concerns by the U.S. and Britain that the crackdown was excessive, Erdogan remained steadfast early Saturday.
“Police were present in Taksim yesterday,” he said before withdrawing officers. “They will be present today and they will be present tomorrow too. Taksim cannot be a place where extremist groups run wild.”
He said the government was determined to revamp Taksim and rebuild the old army barracks but said no firm decision was made on building a shopping mall. He also spoke of government plans to tear down a cultural center to build an opera hall, in statements that could cause further controversy.
“All attempts apart from the ballot box are not democratic,” Erdogan said.
A few thousand people marched along the Bosporus Bridge from the Asian shore of the city, toward Taksim, on the European side, but were met with pressurized water and tear gas that filled the air in a thick cloud.
Police detained a group of protesters who ran into a hotel to shelter from the gas, the private Dogan news agency reported.
Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association, said hundreds of people in several cities were injured and a few hundred people were arrested. The Dogan news agency said 138 demonstrators were detained in Istanbul.
“The people are standing up against Erdogan who is trying to monopolize power and is meddling in all aspects of life,” Turkdogan said.
An influential Turkish business group on Saturday criticized the force used on the protesters and urged more government tolerance.
“The disproportionate force used against … the protests have not only harmed the public conscience, they have had demoralizing effect on any efforts over reconciliation,” said a statement from TUSIAD, representing Turkey’s leading industrialists.
The protests broke out just days after Istanbul pitched its bid to host the 2020 Olympic games to sports and Olympic officials at a conference in St. Petersburg.
The protests received limited coverage on Turkish televisions, reflecting the environment of self-censorship in Turkey since Erdogan’s government came to power a decade ago. And many turned to social media or foreign news outlets for updates on the protests.
The United States, Britain and Sweden were among countries that asked citizens to stay away from areas where protests were held.