ISTANBUL: Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the streets of Turkish cities in defiance of a call from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for them to end their civil uprising.
The government said the protests were “under control” even as the largest crowds yet on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) packed every inch of Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicentre of nine days of nationwide unrest.
As the sun set over Taksim, which has seen no police presence since officers pulled out of the site last Saturday, fans from rival football teams Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray united in the square. They set off red flares to loud cheers from the crowd.
“I have never experienced this friendship, this solidarity among Turks before,” said Fenerbahce supporter Rustu Ozmen.
“We have to keep coming, we can’t give up because Erdogan hasn’t quit yet,” the 29-year-old lawyer added.
In the capital Ankara, hundreds of riot police used tear gas and water cannon on Saturday to disperse some 5,000 demonstrators from the central Kizilay Square.
The police pursued the protesters who took refuge in side streets off the square, which is the nerve center of the Turkish capital. Several people were injured, television reported.
The political turmoil erupted after police cracked down heavily on a small campaign to save Gezi Park from demolition, spiralling into nationwide protests against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Police have used tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have left three dead and thousands injured, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik, speaking after a meeting between the premier and top AKP officials, downplayed the rallies that flew in the face of Erdogan’s demand on Friday to immediately end the protests.
“The process is under the control of the government, and is becoming normalized and increasingly in line with common sense,” he told reporters in Istanbul.
He also dismissed any talk of calling early elections to resolve the crisis. “You don’t decide on early elections because people are marching on the streets.”