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Turkey unrest goes on despite end to park protest

Monday - 6/17/2013, 4:02am  ET

Police chase protesters as Turkish riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, in city's main Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

ELENA BECATOROS
Associated Press

ISTANBUL (AP) -- Riot police cordoned off streets, set up roadblocks and fired tear gas and water cannon to prevent anti-government protesters from converging on Istanbul's central Taksim Square on Sunday, unbowed even as Turkey's prime minister addressed hundreds of thousands of supporters a few kilometers away.

The contrasting scenes pointed to an increasing polarization in Turkish society -- one which critics say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fueled with the fiery rhetoric he has maintained since they began more than two weeks ago.

A police crackdown Saturday evening that ended an 18-day peaceful sit-in at Taksim Square's Gezi Park sparked daylong unrest on the streets of Istanbul, while police also broke up demonstrations in the capital, Ankara, and the southern city of Adana.

The protests began in Gezi Park more than two weeks ago and spread to dozens of cities across the country. Erdogan has blamed them on a nebulous plot to destabilize his government. Five people, including a policeman, have died and more than 5,000 have been injured, according to a Turkish rights group.

Elected to his third term just two years ago with 50 percent of the vote and having steered his country to healthy economic growth, the protests are unlikely to prove an immediate threat to Erdogan's government. But they have dented his international image and exposed growing divisions within Turkish society. Never before in his 10-year tenure has Erdogan faced such an open or broad expression of discontent.

Critics have accused him of an increasingly autocratic way of governing and of trying to impose his conservative Muslim views on the lifestyles of the entire population in a country governed by secular laws -- charges he vehemently denies.

"They say, 'Mr. prime minister, you are too harsh,' and some (call me) 'dictator'," he said during his speech in his second political rally in as many days. "What kind of a dictator meets with people who occupy Gezi Park as well as the sincere environmentalists?" he questioned, referring to a meeting Thursday night with protest representatives.

Erdogan defended his decision to send police in to end the occupation of the park, where protesters had set up a tent city complete with a library, food distribution center, infirmary, children's activity area and plant nursery. Water cannon and tear gas forced thousands to flee, and cleanup crews ripped down the tents and food overnight.

"I did my duty as prime minister," he told his supporters. "Otherwise there would be no point in my being in office."

About 10 kilometers (six miles) away in the center of the city, police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protesters trying to converge on Taksim Square. In some neighborhoods, protesters set up barricades across streets while youths threw stones at police.

In others, police broke up demonstrations with dense clouds of stinging tear gas that sent protesters fleeing into side streets. Some took refuge in nearby cafes and restaurants, where waiters clutched napkins to their faces to ward off the gas.

Similar scenes developed in Ankara, where around 50 demonstrators were injured, including a 20-year-old woman who was in critical condition after being hit in the back of her head with a tear gas canister, according to Selcuk Atalay, secretary-general of the Ankara Medical Association.

In the southern city of Adana, police clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators, the state-run Anadolu Agency said. A fight broke also broke out between the demonstrators, with one group trying to prevent the other from throwing stones at police.

Anadolu said a total of 105 people were detained in Ankara, including a Russian and an Iranian.

Rights group Amnesty International said more than 100 people were believed to have been detained during Saturday's demonstrations in Taksim and nearby districts, and said police were refusing to give details of their whereabouts.

Some among the thousands who fled Gezi Park during Saturday night's police operation had still not managed to return home by Sunday afternoon, fearing being arrested by the police. Erdogan has repeatedly labeled those who attended the park protests as troublemakers and illegal groups, although he has also said he understood the complaints of those who had truly environmental concerns at heart.

One young man who had been demonstrating for days in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, said that as he and his friends fled the police operation in Gezi Park, they ran into a group of men armed with iron bars who chased them through the streets. It was unclear who they were.

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