Bulldozers removed barricades and municipal workers swept the streets around Istanbul’s Taksim Square, sealed off by police after thousands took to the streets overnight following a raid by riot police firing teargas and water cannon to evict demonstrators from the adjoining Gezi Park.
The umbrella protest group behind the Gezi Park campaign, Taksim Solidarity, called for demonstrators to gather peacefully again in the square but Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu made clear they would not be allowed to do so.
“Any call for (people to gather in) Taksim will not contribute to peace and security,” he told reporters, as riot police fired teargas in several locations to disperse groups of demonstrators.
“After the current environment becomes stable, they can continue exercising their democratic rights. Under current circumstances we will not allow any gathering.”
Tens of thousands of ruling AK Party supporters were expected to gather several kilometers away on the other side of Istanbul for Erdoğan’s second rally of the weekend. He told flag-waving crowds in Ankara on Saturday that he would crush his opponents in elections next year.
Erdoğan has said the AK Party rallies in Ankara and Istanbul are meant to kick off campaigning for local elections next year and are not related to the protests, but they are widely seen as a show of strength in response to the demonstrations.
The blunt-talking prime minister has long been Turkey’s most popular politician, overseeing a decade of unprecedented prosperity, and his AK Party has won an increasing share of the vote in three successive election victories, but his critics complain of increasing authoritarianism.
While the protests pose no immediate threat to his government, they have tarnished Turkey’s image as a haven of stability in a turbulent Middle East.
Panicked protesters fled into an upscale hotel at the back of Gezi Park during Saturday night’s raid, several vomiting, as clouds of teargas and blasts from percussion bombs–designed to create confusion rather than injure—engulfed the park.
“We tried to flee and the police pursued us. It was like war,” Claudia Roth, co-chair of Germany’s Greens party, who had gone to Gezi Park to show her support, told Reuters.
Erdoğan had warned hours earlier that the security forces would clear the area around the park–where protesters had been camped out for more than two weeks–in time for his rally.
The government says the demonstrators are being manipulated by illegal groups seeking to sow instability. “There are illegal groups there. Which country would turn a blind eye if a public space is occupied by a marginal group,” EU Minister Egemen Bagis said on Turkey’s Kanal 24 television, citing Istanbul’s governor as saying some of the protesters were believed to have been carrying guns.
“What did the prime minister say, he said people with good intentions should withdraw, we will deal with terrorists. By not withdrawing from there they created an impression that they are shielding terrorists,” Bagis said.
The Gezi Park protesters, who oppose government plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks there, had defied repeated calls to leave but had started to reduce their presence in the park after meetings with Erdoğan and the local authorities.
A similar police crackdown on peaceful campaigners in Gezi Park two weeks ago provoked an unprecedented wave of protest against Erdoğan, drawing in secularists, nationalists, professionals, trade unionists and students.
The unrest, in which police fired teargas and water cannon at stone-throwing protesters night after night, left four people dead and about 5,000 injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
Riot police in Ankara fired teargas on Sunday to try to disperse hundreds of demonstrators blocking streets in the central Kizilay district, after first warning them through megaphones, a Reuters witness said.
Protesters took to the streets in several neighborhoods across Istanbul overnight, ripping up metal fences, paving stones and advertising hoardings to build barricades and lighting bonfires of trash in the streets.
A public-sector union confederation, KESK, which has about 240,000 members, said it would call a national strike for Monday, while a second union grouping said it was holding an emergency meeting to decide whether to join the action.
“The police brutality aims to clear the streets of Istanbul to make way for Erdoğan’s meeting,” said Oguz Kaan Salici, Istanbul president of the main opposition People’s Republican Party. “Yet it will backfire. People feel betrayed.”
Erdoğan told protesters on Thursday that he would put the plans for Gezi Park on hold until a court rules on them. It was a softer stance after two weeks in which he called protesters “riff-raff” and said the plans would go ahead regardless.