The Turkish police fired teargas and water cannons for a second day on Saturday to prevent hundreds of protesters reaching Istanbul's central Taksim Square, the scene of violent protests in which hundreds were injured on Friday.
Anti-government demonstrators wearing handkerchiefs and surgical masks chanted "unite against fascism" and "government resign" as they tried to march to Taksim. Protesters also clashed with police in the Besiktas neighborhood after crossing a bridge in another apparent attempt to reach the square.
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The protest at Taksim's Gezi Park started late on Monday after trees were torn up under a government redevelopment plan, but has widened into a broader demonstration against what they say is the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“There was a mistake in using pepper gas by police forces," he said, adding that "I have ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate this. It was excessive.”
The Turkish prime minister was speaking to the Turkish Exporters Assembly.
Pepper spray in Istanbul (Photo: Reuters)
Nonetheless, Erdogan rejected calls to pull the police out of Taksim. “Police were there, are there and will be there,” he said.
To the root of the matter, Erdogan claimed that the protests had little to do with urban redevelopment, rather hinting at behind the scenes political string pulling.
“It is unfair to label this government anti-green or anti-environmentalist,” he said, “I want my nation to see the game some circles are playing in the country. Nobody has the right to raise tension in this country claiming that trees are being chopped down.”
Police and protesters clash (Photo: Reuters)
Regarding claims of Erdogan's anti-democratic stripe, he said “Everyone should know that Turkey is a country where parliamentarian system fully functions.
"Every method other than elections is anti-democratic. I am not saying the government is not accountable. We are not claiming that the government can do whatever it wants. But, just like the majority cannot pressure the minority, the minority also cannot impose its will on the majority,” he said.
Water cannon in Istanbul (Photo: Reuters)
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınc also criticized the large amount of tear gas used against demonstrators, and also focused on the environmental aspect of the protests.
"I think it's beneficial to exert efforts to convince those who say 'We don't want a mall here,' rather than using tear gas on them," Hurriyet newspaper quoted Arınc as saying Saturday.
He also claimed being very upset by the violent imagery emerging from the protests.
"There are sensitive people on environmental issues who have been harmed during these demonstrations. I want to express my get well soon wishes to them and say that I have been very saddened by this," Arınc said.
In line with Erdogan, he also claimed that "provocateurs" were involved in escalating the situation
Protests in Istanbul. Friday night. (Video: Reuters)
Medics said close to 1,000 people were injured in the clashes in Istanbul on Friday, the fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years. Half a dozen lost eyes after being hit by gas canisters, the Turkish Doctors' Association said.
The US State Department said it was concerned by the number of injuries while Amnesty International and the European parliament raised concern about excessive use of police force.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said allegations that police had used disproportionate force would be investigated.
Protests erupted in the capital Ankara and the Aegean coastal city of Izmir late on Friday and there were calls on social media for similar demonstrations in more than a dozen cities on Saturday
Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association, said hundreds of people in several cities were injured in the police crackdown and a few hundred people were arrested. The Dogan news agency said 81 demonstrators were detained in Istanbul.
The protest was seen as a demonstration of the anger had already been building toward Turkish police who have been accused of using inordinate force to quash demonstrations and of firing tear gas too abundantly, including at this year's May Day rally.
There is also resentment from mainly pro-secular circles toward the prime minister's Islamic-rooted government and toward Erdogan himself, who is known for his abrasive style. He is accused of adopting increasingly uncompromising stance and showing little tolerance of criticism.
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 use of (tear) gas at such proportions is unacceptable," Turkdogan told The Associated Press. "It is a danger to public health and as such is a crime. Unfortunately, there isn't a prosecutor brave enough to stand up to police."
"The people are standing up against Erdogan who is trying to monopolize power and is meddling in all aspects of life," he said.
Thousands marched through streets in several cities on Friday, calling on Erdogan to resign. Cars honked and residents banged on pots and pans in a show of solidarity with protesters.
In the capital Ankara, thousands gathered at a small park and swelled into a popular shopping street. Police broke up groups that tried to march toward the Parliament building, a few hundred meters (yards) away.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report
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