ISTANBUL: An uneasy calm returned to Istanbul’s protest square early Wednesday after running clashes between riot police and protesters, as Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed zero tolerance for the mass demos.
Hours earlier, Taksim Square had resembled a battle scene, swathed in acrid smoke as police dispersed tens of thousands of protesters chanting “Erdogan, resign!” and “Resistance!” on the worst night of violence in 12 days of nationwide unrest.
After riot police sent the large crowd scrambling with tear gas and jets of water, cat-and-mouse games with smaller groups of demonstrators continued into the night.
By 5 a.m. (2 a.m. Manila time), refuse trucks were clearing up the empty gas cannisters and the remains of broken barricades which had for more than a week blocked all access to the square and neighboring Gezi Park, the original flashpoint for the protests.
There was a heavy police presence in the square while thousands of weary demonstrators took refuge in the park.
Fresh unrest also erupted in the capital Ankara on Tuesday, with police using tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon against 5,000 protesters near the US embassy. Some threw rocks in response.
The unexpected police intervention in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which began early Tuesday morning, marked the first time officers had returned to the area since pulling out more than a week ago. They fought hours-long battles with clusters of demonstrators, some of whom hurled fireworks and Molotov cocktails.
The police also brought in bulldozers to clear barricades erected by demonstrators.
The assault on Taksim Square surprised protesters, many of whom were dozing in the nearby park, because it came after Prime Minister Erdogan said he would meet with protest leaders on Wednesday, his first major concession since the trouble began.
But the premier made no mention of the olive branch Tuesday and resumed his tough stance against the demonstrators, who have put up the biggest challenge yet to his decade-long rule.
“This episode is now over. We won’t show any more tolerance,” the premier told cheering lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a speech broadcast live on television.
The nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on May 31 on a campaign to save Gezi Park from redevelopment.
The trouble spiralled into mass displays of anger against Erdogan, who is seen as increasingly authoritarian, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.