ISTANBUL – An uneasy calm returned to Istanbul’s protest square early Wednesday following a day of running clashes between riot police and protesters.
Hours earlier, Taksim Square had resembled a battlefield, draped 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 unrest nationwide. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed zero tolerance for the mass demonstrations.
Riot police sent the large crowd scrambling with tear gas and water cannons, while cat-and-mouse games with smaller groups continued into the night.
By early morning Wednesday, refuse trucks were clearing empty gas canisters and the remains of broken barricades that had for more than a week blocked all access to the square and neighboring Gezi Park, the protests’ original flash point.
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 cannons against 5,000 protesters near the U.S. Embassy.
The unexpected police intervention in Taksim, which began early Tuesday, 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 protesters, some of whom hurled fireworks and Molotov cocktails.
The police also brought in bulldozers to clear barricades erected by demonstrators.
The assault on Taksim surprised protesters, many of whom were dozing in the nearby park, because it came after Erdogan said he would meet with protest leaders Wednesday, his first major concession since the outbreak of the demonstrations.
But the leader made no mention of that 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,” Erdogan told cheering lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party in a speech broadcast live on television.
“Can you believe that? They attack Taksim, gas us in the morning just after proposing talks with us?” said Yilmaz, a 23-year-old protester who gave only one name.
“We won’t abandon Gezi,” he vowed. “I am not afraid of their water cannon, it’ll be my first shower in three days.”