Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan made a defiant call for an end to the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years on Saturday, as thousands of protesters clashed with riot police in Istanbul and Ankara for a second day.
The unrest was triggered by government plans for a replica Ottoman-era barracks housing shops or apartments in Istanbul's Taksim Square, long a venue for political protest, but has widened into a broader show of defiance against Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
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Police fired teargas and water cannon down a major shopping street as crowds of protesters chanting "shoulder to shoulder against fascism" and "government resign" marched towards Taksim, where hundreds were injured in clashes on Friday.
"If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party," Erdogan said in a televised speech.
"Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice ... Those who have a problem with government's policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy," he said.
Turkish police later retreated from the square, taking away barricades and allowing in tens of thousands of protesters in an apparent move to end tensions from two days of anti-government protests.
Some protesters hurled objects at withdrawing officers and police vehicles, prompting officers to fire several rounds of tear gas to push back the crowds and resumed pulling out of Taksim Square, the private Dogan news agency reported.
Taksim Square, Saturday (Photo: AFP)
The state-run Anadolu Agency said the protesters threw fireworks at police.
A police helicopter buzzed overhead as groups of mostly young men and women, bandanas or surgical masks tied around their mouths, used Facebook and Twitter on mobile phones to try to organize and regroup in side streets.
Waiters scurried out of luxury hotels lining the square, on what should be a busy weekend for tourists in one of the world's most visited cities, ferrying lemons to protesters, who squirted the juice in their eyes to mitigate the effects of tear gas.
"People from different backgrounds are coming together. This has become a protest against the government, against Erdogan taking decisions like a king," said Oral Goktas, a 31-year old architect among a peaceful crowd walking towards Taksim.
Erdogan called on demonstrators to end their protest, but remained defiant. He said the government would press ahead with the redevelopment plans at Taksim that sparked the demonstrations.
In the televised speech, Erdogan said police may have used tear gas excessively while confronting protesters and said this would be investigated. But he said the protesters didn't represent the majority and accused them of raising tensions.
The protests grew out of anger at heavy-handed police tactics Friday to break up a peaceful sit-in by people trying to protect a park in Taksim square from government plans to revamp the area. Officials say the plans include building a shopping mall and the reconstruction of a former Ottoman army barracks.
The park demonstration turned into a wider protest against Erdogan, who is seen as becoming increasingly authoritarian, and spread to other Turkish cities despite the court decision to temporarily halt the demolition of the park. A human rights group said hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police that lasted through the night.
At Taksim, protesters chanted slogans against Erdogan's government and called on him to resign.
In the capital, Ankara, police clashed with protesters who gathered at a park close to Erdogan's office.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul called for "common sense" to prevail, saying the protests reached a "worrisome level."
"We all need to be mature in order for the protests... which have reached a worrisome level, to calm down," Gul said in a statement released by his office, calling on the police to "act in proportion."
Turkey's Interior Ministry said that an investigation was underway into allegations of excessive use of force by Turkish Police at the Taksim Park.
In a written statement released on Saturday, the ministry said "Police intervention had to take place against those harming work machines, workers, security forces, shop owners and citizens. In such interventions, tear gas is not used unless it is absolutely necessary.
"We expect our citizens to act sensitively against certain marginal groups who try to provoke the citizens against police forces by conducting illegal rallies," the statement also said.
AP, Reuters contributed to the report
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