Turkish riot police stormed Istanbul's Taksim Square Tuesday morning, firing teargas and water cannons on protesters who have been demonstrating in the area for nearly two weeks. Backed by armed vehicles and donning protective shields, the police raided the central square early this morning, as protesters responded with rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails.
Anti-government protests have raged across Turkey since late last month, when police forcibly removed a group of environmentalists from Istanbul's Gezi Park. The park, located near Taksim, is slated to be demolished to make way for a new shopping center as part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's widespread redevelopment plan. The government's heavy-handed response inspired similar demonstrations in Ankara and other cities, as the movement broadened into a nationwide protest against Erdogan, whom many see as authoritarian and increasingly conservative.
"What did the protesters expect? That we would kneel down before them?"
Taksim has been the epicenter of Turkey's protests, and had remained relatively calm until Tuesday morning. As Al Jazeera reports, police have repeatedly insisted that they are not targeting the peaceful protesters in Gezi Park, but are only looking to clear those camped out in Taksim. But the move seems to contradict earlier promises from Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu, who had previously stated that police would not intervene in Gezi or Taksim.
On Tuesday, Mutlu took to Twitter to explain the operation, saying that police were only there to clear the area of banners and barricades. According to the BBC, police have removed anti-government banners that were hanging from nearby buildings, replacing them with images of Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey.
Vice's Tim Pool has been live streaming events from Taksim Square as they unfold.
In a statement, Mutlu's office said that the ongoing protests reflected poorly on Istanbul, and that the banners and flags were "negatively affecting our country's image in the eyes of world opinion and leading to reaction from within the society." Erdoğan, remaining defiant as he has throughout this month's unrest, adopted an even stronger tone when he defended the police intervention during a parliamentary speech Tuesday: "What did the protesters expect? That we would kneel down before them?"
Tuesday's clashes come just days after Erdoğan agreed to meet with protesters, in a sign that the government may be eager to resolve the country's ongoing demonstrations. Three people have died and more than 5,000 have been injured since protests broke out 12 days ago. Erdoğan was expected to meet with protest leaders on Wednesday.
Anti-government activists have already questioned Erdogan's intervention in Taksim, with some suggesting that the government may have deployed undercover agents to pose as bomb-tossing protesters. Activist group Occupy Gezi published a photo of an alleged protester early Tuesday morning, pointing to a protrusion in his back pocket that some believe may be a gun or police radio. Others note that police suspiciously avoided striking these protesters with water cannons, though authorities have vehemently denied all such accusations.
Elsewhere in Istanbul, police clashed with a group of lawyers who had been demonstrating in support of the Gezi Park protesters in a local courthouse. Reports suggest that between 20 and 50 lawyers have been arrested and detained, as images poured in to Twitter and other social media sites. One hundred other lawyers later staged a demonstration outside the police station, demanding the immediate release of their colleagues.
It remains unclear whether today's clashes will have an immediate impact on resolution efforts going forward, though Erdoğan appears resolute in his determination to maintain control, telling lawmakers that he has "no more tolerance" for ongoing unrest.
"If my reaction is considered too tough, then I'm sorry," the prime minister said, as quoted by The Guardian. "I am Tayyip Erdoğan, I can't change that."