ISTANBUL, (Reuters) – Turkish riot police fired water cannon and tear gas in clashes with crowds who gathered for an outlawed May Day rally in central Istanbul on Thursday.
Thousands of police were stationed in the centre of Turkey’s largest city to block access to its main Taksim Square after three trade union confederations pledged to mobilise up to 500,000 people in defiance of an official ban.
Strains surrounding the traditional May Day demonstrations of workers’ unity were heightened this year by union opposition to a reform of the social security system which raises the retirement age sharply.
The unions later abandoned plans to march towards the square because of the heavy police presence. Masked protesters threw bricks at the lines of riot police as armoured vehicles sprayed them with water cannon and police fired tear gas.
Tensions have also been increased by a prosecutor’s bid to close the ruling AK Party and ban 71 party officials including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for alleged Islamist activities.
Officials have cited intelligence reports that radical groups planned to stage violent protests during the rally.
Militant leftists and Kurdish separatists frequently clash with police at demonstrations.
A Reuters reporter saw several police beat one man with truncheons. “The workers built the road we are standing on and now we are being crushed on it,” said retired Resit Celiktepe, 51. There were no details on casualties or detentions. “In order not to become a tool of this government’s provocations we are sensibly ending our actions here. But we will continue to call the government to account,” said Suleyman Celebi, chairman of DISK trade union confederation, after the plan to march towards Taksim Square was abandoned.
Last year dozens were injured in street battles on the 30th anniversary of the deaths of 37 people who were shot by an unknown gunman or trampled to death in May Day demonstrations in Taksim Square in 1977.
May 1, a traditional workers’ day holiday across most of Europe, is a normal working day in Turkey where the government resisted intense union pressure this year to make it a day off. “Everyone must show common sense,” Labour Minister Faruk Celik was quoted by state-run Anatolian news agency as saying. “If we can get through May Day today in agreement, I believe future May Days will turn into the celebration sought by all workers,” he said. The retirement age will be raised in stages to 65, from 48 for men and 44 for women.