By Nick Tattersall and Ayla Jean Yackley, ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish riot police using tear gas and water cannon battled protesters for control of Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Tuesday night as demonstrators defied Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s demand they clear the area and end 10 days of demonstrations.
Police fired volleys of tear gas canisters into a crowd of thousands – people in office clothes as well as youths in masks who had fought skirmishes throughout the day – sending them scattering into side streets and nearby hotels. Water cannon swept across the square targeting stone-throwers in masks.
Protesters, who accuse Erdogan of overreaching his authority after 10 years in power and three election victories, thronged the steep narrow lanes that lead down to the Bosphorus waterway. Gradually, many began drifting back into the square as police withdrew, and gathered around a bonfire of rubbish.
Erdogan had earlier called on protesters to stay out of Taksim, the center of demonstrations triggered by a heavy-handed police crackdown on a rally against development of the small Gezi Park abutting the square.
Gezi Park has been turned into a ramshackle settlement of tents by leftists, environmentalists, liberals, students and professionals who see the development plan as symptomatic of overbearing government.
The protests, during which demonstrators used fireworks and petrol bombs, have posed a stark challenge to Erdogan’s authority and divided the country. In an indication of the impact of the protests on investor confidence, the central bank said it would intervene if needed to support the Turkish lira.
Erdogan, who denies accusations of authoritarian behavior, declared he would not yield.
“They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen here? Were we going to kneel down in front of these (people)?” Erdogan said as action to clear the square began.
“If you call this roughness, I’m sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won’t change,” he told a meeting of his AK party’s parliamentary group.
Western allies have expressed concern about the troubles in a key NATO ally bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran. Washington has held up Erdogan’s Turkey as an example of an Islamic democracy that could be emulated elsewhere in the Middle East.
Victor in three consecutive elections, Erdogan says the protests are engineered by vandals, terrorist elements and unnamed foreign forces. His critics, who say conservative religious elements have won out over centrists in his AK party, accuse him of inflaming the crisis with unyielding talk.
“A comprehensive attack against Turkey has been carried out,” Erdogan said.
“The increase in interest rates, the fall in the stock markets, the deterioration in the investment environment, the intimidation of investors – the efforts to distort Turkey’s image have been put in place as a systematic project,” he said.
Despite the street protests against Erdogan, he remains unrivalled as a leader in his AK party, in parliament and on the streets.
The unrest has knocked investor confidence in a country that has boomed under Erdogan. The lira, already suffering from wider market turmoil, fell to its weakest level against its dollar/euro basket since October 2011.
The cost of insuring Turkish debt against default rose to its highest in ten months, although it remained far from crisis levels.
The police move came a day after Erdogan agreed to meet protest leaders involved in the initial demonstrations over development of the square.
“I invite all demonstrators, all protesters, to see the big picture and the game that is being played,” Erdogan said. “The ones who are sincere should withdraw … and I expect this from them as their prime minister.”
Protesters accuse Erdogan of authoritarian rule and some suspect him of ambitions to replace the secular republic with an Islamic order – something Erdogan denies.
“This movement won’t end here … After this, I don’t think people will go back to being afraid of this government or any government,” said student Seyyit Cikmen, 19, as the crowd chanted “Every place is Taksim, every place resistance.”
Turkey’s Medical Association said that as of late Monday, 4,947 people had sought treatment in hospitals and voluntary infirmaries for injuries, ranging from cuts and burns to breathing difficulties from tear gas inhalation, since the unrest began more than ten days ago. Three people have died.
Erdogan has repeatedly dismissed the protesters as “riff-raff”. But Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said on Monday leaders of the Gezi Park Platform group had asked to meet him and Erdogan had agreed.
A meeting was expected on Wednesday.
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