939 protesters detained in Turkey after violent anti-government riots

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Turkish protesters wearing gas masks face off against riot police near Istanbul's Taksim Square on Saturday, June 1 (Photo: CNN).

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) — At least 79 people, including 26 members of the Turkish security forces, have been injured in violent clashes across Turkey, Interior Minister Muammer Guler told Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu news agency on Saturday.

Turkish authorities have detained 939 people in connection with anti-government protests across 30 provinces, Guler told Anadolu on Saturday.

Police crackdown triggers anti-government riots

After battling for nearly 36 hours with tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray, Turkish police retreated from Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Saturday afternoon, allowing tens of thousands of demonstrators to pour into the space.

A peaceful sit-in on Friday against government plans to demolish a park was met with a police crackdown, igniting the biggest anti-government riots this city has seen in a decade.

The clashes subsided Saturday afternoon, when police allowed protesters to flow into the square. The protesters pelted police vehicles with stones as they withdrew from the area.

The protests also spread to several other cities, including the capital Ankara and the port city of Izmir.

At least 14 people were injured in the clashes in Istanbul, including one who suffered brain trauma, the Istanbul governor’s office said.

Earlier Saturday crowds gathered across central Istanbul and chanted “government resign” and “shoulder to shoulder against fascism” as phalanxes of helmeted riot police responded with volleys of tear gas canisters.

For 24 hours, a toxic fog of tear gas and pepper spray hung in the air over Istanbul’s central Taksim square.

This major transport hub and commercial district has become the main battleground between angry protesters who hurled stones and bottles at riot police.

On Saturday, Turkey’s fiery prime minister broke his silence about the protests, vowing not to back down to the demonstrators.

“The police where there yesterday, they are there today, and they will be there tomorrow. Taksim Square cannot be allowed to be a place where marginal groups can freely roam,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech transmitted live on Turkish television channels.

But Erdogan also conceded that Turkish security forces had made excessive use of tear gas against demonstrators.

“There have been errors in the actions of the security forces, especially with regard to use of pepper gas. Right now that is being investigated, researched. There is an error there, sure. When it is used excessively we are against it as well. And in fact there was such excess,” Erdogan said.

In some Istanbul neighborhoods, residents banged pots and pans in protest on the street during the prime minister’s speech.

Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said police have been ordered to be judicious in how they confront the demonstrators.

Addressing the original complaint, Kalin said that Istanbul’s mayor said he is considering a number of projects at the park, and not necessarily a shopping mall. But the scope of the protests show there is a bigger issue about freedom of speech versus accusations of authoritative government.

“People are entitled to disagreement with the government, they can exercise their democratic rights, but they can do so within the context of a democratic society,” Kalin said.

International human rights groups Amnesty International and Greenpeace have denounced what they describe as excessive use of police force against peaceful protesters.

On Friday, city government officials said at least 12 people had been wounded in the clashes, and at least 63 people detained. Opposition lawmaker Sirri Surreya Onder was hospitalized after being struck in the back with a tear gas canister.

“The prime minister has been overlooking and belittling the will of the people. He has been acting like a small sultan,” said Sebahat Tuncel, another parliament member from Onder’s Peace and Democracy Party.

Lost amid the explosion of anger in the streets of Istanbul was the original source of the protests.

Earlier this week, several dozen activists tried to stage a sit-in in Gezi Park, the last bit of green space left in Taksim Square.

The demonstrators were protesting government plans to level the park and replace it with a reconstruction of century-old Ottoman military barracks, to have been updated with a shopping mall and a mosque.

On Wednesday, Erdogan responded to the small park protest, vowing to go ahead with the planned project.

“They can do whatever they want. We’ve made our decision, and we will do as we have decided,” Erdogan said, according to the semi-official Anadolu news agency.

For three straight days, police periodically raided the park protest, dousing unarmed demonstrators with pepper spray and tear gas. The sit-in continued to grow and win support from Turkish celebrities and lawmakers from both the main secular and pro-Kurdish opposition political parties.

On Friday morning, riot police stormed the growing camp in Gezi Park with water cannons and more tear gas, pushing protesters out into surrounding streets, and triggering the clashes that have continued for more than 24 hours.

In his televised statement on Saturday, Erdogan remained defiant on his plans for the park, saying “we are going to build the Topcu barracks, it is not a project that came out of nowhere.”

But many demonstrators said they were no longer protesting about the park.

The demonstrations were now against the increasingly authoritarian policies of Erdogan, the most powerful, popular and polarizing leader Turkey has seen in generations.

Turkey has enjoyed an unprecedented decade of economic growth, since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party first swept to power after winning elections in 2002 on a campaign to institute pro-democratic reforms.

But in recent years, the Turkish government has come under fire from media watchdog groups for its prolonged detention of more journalists than any other country in the world. Turkish security forces have also made such frequent use of tear gas against opposition protesters that some critics have started referring to the prime minister as “Chemical Tayyip.”

“The reason for massive protest in Turkey is in fact trivial. (A construction in a park.) But this shows the cumulative reaction to Erdogan,” wrote Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish newspaper columnist and outspoken champion of “liberal Islam.”

“Erdogan needs to see that the country needs more ‘participatory democracy.’ People want to influence decisions in public matters…it is ultimately none other than Erdogan who cultivated this anger and who needs to calm it down.

“Erdogan probably did not know thousands of people who voted for him were among those raising their voices as well,” columnist Sule Kulu wrote Saturday in the English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman.

“If he does not return to his pro-democracy stance, this would prepare his fall in Turkish politics. ─░stanbul, his place of birth in politics, can bring him his political death.”