Istanbul, AP—Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday called on demonstrators to end anti-government protests now into a second day, but he remained defiant, insisting police would break down protests at a main Istanbul square and indicating that the government would press ahead with the redevelopment plans that sparked the demonstrations.
In a televised speech, Erdogan said police may have used tear gas excessively while confronting protesters and said this would be investigated. But he said the protesters did not represent the majority and accused them of raising tensions.
Police let off more tear gas and pressurized water against waves of protesters trying to reach a main square in Istanbul or the Parliament building in the capital, Ankara, early on Saturday, but appeared to be allowing crowds to approach the heavily guarded square in the afternoon.
The protests grew out of anger at heavy-handed police tactics on Friday to break up a peaceful sit-in by people trying to protect a park in Istanbul’s main Taksim square from government plans to revamp the area. Officials have said include building a shopping mall and the reconstruction of a former Ottoman army barracks.
The park demonstration turned into a wider protest against Erdogan, who is seen as becoming increasingly authoritarian, and spread to other Turkish cities despite the court decision to temporarily halt the demolition of the park. A human rights group said hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police that lasted through the night.
“Police were present in Taksim yesterday,” Erdogan said. “They will be present today and they will be present tomorrow too. Taksim cannot be a place where extremist groups run wild.”
He said the government was determined to revamp Taksim and rebuild the old army barracks but said no firm decision was made on building a shopping mall. He also spoke of government plans to tear down a cultural center to build an opera hall, in statements that could cause further controversy.
Erdogan, who is serving a third term in office after winning landslide elections, denounced the protests as illegitimate and suggested he could easily summon 1 million people for a pro-government rally.
“All attempts apart from the ballot box are not democratic,” Erdogan said.
On Saturday, police clashed with several groups of youths trying to reach Taksim, the city’s main hub and shopping center. Some threw stones at police.
A few thousand people marched along the Bosporus Bridge from the Asian shore of the city, toward Taksim, on the European side, but were met with pressurized water and tear gas that filled the air in a thick cloud.
Police detained a group of protesters who ran into a hotel to shelter from the gas, the private Dogan news agency reported.
They also prevented a rally in downtown Ankara, close to a building housing Erdogan’s office, firing tear gas as people started to gather.
The leader of Turkey’s pro-secular, main opposition party called on Erdogan to immediately withdraw police from Taksim.
“Show us that you are the prime minister, pull back your police,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.
Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association, said hundreds of people in several cities were injured in the police crackdown and a few hundred people were arrested. The Dogan news agency said 138 demonstrators were detained in Istanbul.
The protest was seen as a demonstration of the anger had already been building toward Turkish police who have been accused of using inordinate force to quash demonstrations and of firing tear gas too abundantly, including at this year’s May Day rally.
There is also resentment from mainly pro-secular circles toward the prime minister’s Islamic-rooted government and toward Erdogan himself, who is known for his abrasive style. He is accused of adopting increasingly uncompromising stance and showing little tolerance of criticism.
In a surprise move last week, the government quickly passed legislation curbing the sale and advertising of alcoholic drinks, alarming secularists. Many felt insulted when he defended the legislation by calling people who drink “alcoholics.”
“The use of (tear) gas at such proportions is unacceptable,” Turkdogan told The Associated Press. “It is a danger to public health and as such is a crime. Unfortunately, there isn’t a prosecutor brave enough to stand up to police.”
“The people are standing up against Erdogan who is trying to monopolize power and is meddling in all aspects of life,” he said.
An influential Turkish business group on Saturday criticized the force used on the protesters and urged more government tolerance.
“The disproportionate force used against … the protests have not only harmed the public conscience, they have had demoralizing effect on any efforts over reconciliation,” said a statement from TUSIAD, representing Turkey’s leading industrialists.
The protests broke out just days after Istanbul pitched its bid to host the 2020 Olympic games to sports and Olympic officials at a conference in St. Petersburg.
The protests received limited coverage on Turkish televisions, reflecting the environment of self-censorship in Turkey since Erdogan’s government came to power a decade ago. And many turned to social media or foreign news outlets for updates on the protests.
Thousands marched through streets in several cities in solidarity with the Taksim protesters on Friday, calling on Erdogan to resign. Cars honked and residents banged on pots and pans in a show of solidarity with protesters. In the capital Ankara, thousands gathered at a small park and swelled into a popular shopping street. Many were seen drinking in the street protest of government restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcohol. Police broke up groups that tried to march toward the Parliament building, a few hundred meters away.
The United States, Britain and Sweden were among countries that asked citizens to stay away from areas where protests were held.