ISTANBUL – Riot police cordoned off streets, set up roadblocks and fired tear gas and water cannons to prevent anti-government protesters from converging on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Sunday, unbowed even as Turkey’s prime minister addressed hundreds of thousands of supporters a few miles away.
The contrasting scenes pointed to an increasing polarization in Turkish society – one which critics say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fueled with the fiery rhetoric he has maintained since they began more than two weeks ago.
A police crackdown Saturday evening that ended an 18-day peaceful sit-in at Taksim Square’s Gezi Park sparked daylong unrest on the streets of Istanbul, while police also broke up demonstrations in the capital, Ankara, and the southern city of Adana.
The protests began in Gezi Park more than two weeks ago and spread to dozens of cities across the country. Erdogan has blamed them on a nebulous plot to destabilize his government. Five people, including a policeman, have died and more than 5,000 have been injured, according to a Turkish rights group.
Elected to his third term just two years ago with 50 percent of the vote and having steered his country to healthy economic growth, the protests are unlikely to prove an immediate threat to Erdogan’s government. But they have dented his international image and exposed growing divisions within Turkish society. Never before in his 10-year tenure has Erdogan faced such an open or broad expression of discontent.
Critics have accused him of an increasingly autocratic way of governing and of trying to impose his conservative Muslim views on the lifestyles of the entire population in a country governed by secular laws – charges he vehemently denies.
“They say, ‘Mister prime minister, you are too harsh,’ and some (call me) ‘dictator,’ ” he said during his speech in his second political rally in as many days. “What kind of a dictator meets with people who occupy Gezi Park as well as the sincere environmentalists?” he asked, referring to a meeting Thursday night with protest representatives.
Erdogan defended his decision to send police in to end the occupation of the park, where protesters had set up a tent city complete with a library, food distribution center, infirmary, children’s activity area and plant nursery. Water cannons and tear gas forced thousands to flee, and cleanup crews ripped down the tents and food overnight.
“I did my duty as prime minister,” he told his supporters. “Otherwise there would be no point in my being in office.”
About six miles away, in the center of the city, police fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protesters trying to converge on Taksim Square. In some neighborhoods, protesters set up barricades across streets while youths threw stones at police.
In others, police broke up demonstrations with dense clouds of stinging tear gas that sent protesters fleeing into side streets. Some took refuge in nearby cafes and restaurants, where waiters clutched napkins to their faces to ward off the gas.
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