ISTANBUL: Turkish riot police fired water cannon and teargas at hundreds of protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Tuesday, Reuters witnesses said, entering the square for the first time since demonstrations against plans to develop a park there turned violent.
The police move came after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan agreed to meet protest leaders, whose peaceful demonstrations two weeks ago spiralled into protests against his government in which three people have been killed and about 5,000 hurt.
Police removed protesters’ banners from a building overlooking the square and the local governor said police had no intention of breaking up the protest in adjoining Gezi Park.
“Our aim is to remove the signs and pictures on Ataturk statue and the Ataturk Cultural Centre. We have no other aim,” Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu wrote on Twitter. “Gezi Park and Taksim will not be touched.”
Police hung a single Turkish flag and a picture of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the building.
Crowd control vehicles fired water cannon against groups of protesters who threw stones, fireworks and petrol bombs at the police. Nearby, hundreds more protesters, wearing face masks to protect against the effects of teargas, gathered on steps leading from the square to the park.
“Every place is Taksim, every place resistance,” the protesters chanted.
Police appealed to the demonstrators not to attack, calling from loudspeakers, “Dear Gezi friends. We are unhappy with this situation. We don’t want to intervene. We don’t want to harm you. Please withdraw.”
“If you don’t throw rocks or bottles we will not intervene. Let’s quit fighting,” a police officer called out as clashes continued.
Erdogan has repeatedly dismissed the protesters as “capulcular”, or riff-raff. But Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said on Monday leaders of the Gezi Park Platform group had asked to meet him in an effort to end the unrest.
A meeting was expected on Wednesday.
The protests have shaken the predominantly Muslim country’s image as a stable democracy in a turbulent region and as a vibrant emerging market for investors.
The violent police action has drawn criticism from the West and Erdogan has increasingly accused foreign forces of trying to aggravate the troubles.
For the last ten days the protesters have controlled a large area around the square, with approach roads barricaded by masonry, paving stones and steel rods. Police had withdrawn completely from the area and kept water cannon vehicles hundreds of metres away by the side of the Bosphorus strait.
In a move that might add to discontent among secular Turks, President Abdullah Gul approved on Monday a bill that scales back the sale and consumption of alcohol.
Turkey has a secular constitution but Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK party has come under fire for undermining the separation of state and religion. Critics accuse Erdogan and the party of trying to interfere in their lives.
Turkish markets have been hit by the unrest and the Turkish lira, also hit by market developments abroad, weakened to 2.22 against its dollar/euro basket on Tuesday, its weakest level since October 2011.