ISTANBUL – Turkish riot police firing tear gas and water cannons took less than half an hour on Saturday to bring to an end an 18-day occupation of an Istanbul park at the center of the strongest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 10-year rule.
The sweep by white-helmeted riot police emptied Gezi Park of protesters, leaving a series of colorful, abandoned tents behind. Bulldozers moved in afterward, scooping up debris as crews of workmen in hard hats and fluorescent yellow vests tore down the tents. Protesters put up little physical resistance, even as plain-clothes police shoved many of them to drive them from the park.
White smoke billowed skyward as a phalanx of riot police marched inside the park on Saturday. They tore down protesters’ banners, toppled a communal food stall, and sprayed tear gas over the tents and urging those inside to get out.
For more than two weeks, protesters had defied Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s warnings to vacate the area.
Tayfun Kahraman, a member of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protest movements, said an untold number of people in the park had been injured – some from rubber bullets.
“Let them keep the park, we don’t care anymore. Let it all be theirs. This crackdown has to stop. The people are in a terrible state,” he told the Associated Press by phone.
A brutal police intervention on May 31 against those protesting plans to redevelop the square and the park had sparked the biggest anti-government protests in Turkey in decades and dented Erdogan’s international reputation.
The protests, which at one point spread to dozens of Turkish cities and towns, turned into a much broader expression of discontent about Erdogan’s government, and what many say is his increasingly authoritarian decision-making.
Erdogan, who was elected with 50 percent of the vote for his third term in 2011, vehemently rejects the accusations by protesters and points to his strong support base.
As they entered the park on Saturday, police shouted to the protesters: “This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you – Evacuate.”