Turkish PM: 'Duty' to crackdown on protest

People carry the coffin of Ethem Sarisuluk, one of five people killed during the recent protests in Turkey. The country's Prime Minister says it was his 'duty' to crackdown on the protest. Photo / AP
People carry the coffin of Ethem Sarisuluk, one of five people killed during the recent protests in Turkey. The country's Prime Minister says it was his 'duty' to crackdown on the protest. Photo / AP

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a crowd of more than 100,000 supporters it was his "duty" to order a crackdown on an Istanbul protest park, as police and anti-government demonstrators faced off in fresh clashes.

A day after riot police dislodged thousands of protesters occupying Gezi Park, officers in the area were still firing tear gas and jets of water at pockets of protesters determined to regroup.

Some 10 kilometres away, in a much larger park, Erdogan launched a show of strength for supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), drawing the largest crowd yet since the demos against his government erupted more than two weeks ago.

Addressing the cheering sea of people, many of whom wore white AKP caps, a combative Erdogan said protesters had forced his hand by defying repeated warnings to clear out of the park.

"I said we were at an end. That it was unbearable. Yesterday the operation was carried out and it was cleaned up," Erdogan said. "It was my duty as prime minister."

The violence sparked by the Gezi Park evacuation marked a major escalation in mass unrest that has posed the biggest challenge yet to the Islamic-rooted government's decade-long rule.

Two of Turkey's main trade union federations, KESK and DISK, announced they would go on strike Monday in protest at the police clashes overnight.

"Our demand is for police violence to end immediately," KESK spokesman Baki Cinar told AFP.

The unions represent hundreds of thousand of workers and the stoppage is likely to affect schools, hospitals and public offices across the country.

The police intervention in Gezi Park came after Erdogan issued a final warning to protesters during a fiery speech at an election rally in the capital Ankara on Saturday.

Two hours later, officers with gas masks and riot shields stormed the patch of green. Thousands of campers scrambled to escape clouds of acrid tear gas, clearing the site within minutes and leaving a trail of empty tents in their wake.

Many sought refuge in the luxury hotels bordering the park, prompting police to douse the lobby of at least one five-star establishment with water as guests choked on tear gas fumes.

Thousands of demonstrators later took to the streets of Ankara and the western city of Izmir in solidarity.

The political turmoil first began when a peaceful sit-in to save Gezi Park's 600 trees from being razed prompted a brutal police response on May 31, spiralling into countrywide demonstrations against Erdogan.

The crisis has claimed four lives and injured nearly 7,500 people so far, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

Opponents accuse Erdogan of authoritarian tendencies and of forcing Islamic conservative reforms on the mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation of 76 million.

But the 59-year-old, who has been in power since 2002, remains hugely popular. The AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.

Erdogan has repeatedly urged his supporters to answer the protesters by voting for his AKP in next year's local polls.

More election rallies are planned in cities across Turkey in coming weeks, Erdogan said.

'Gezi Park returned to the people'

Mey Elbi, a 39-year-old yoga teacher, was in Gezi park when police entered and said they seized the protesters' goggles and gas masks.

"I won't give up," she told AFP. "We're angry, this is not over. The world has seen that together, we can stand up to Tayyip."

The Taksim Solidarity group, seen as most representative of the protesters, condemned Saturday's "brutal attack", which it said had left "hundreds" injured.

Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said 44 people had been hurt, none seriously.

By Sunday evening, Gezi Park and the adjoining Taksim Square, another focal point for the protests, were sealed off and guarded with a heavy police presence.

Yellow tape lined the area, blocking entry to pedestrians, as bulldozers broke up protesters' makeshift barricades and municipal cleaners returfed grassy areas and planted fresh flowers.

"Gezi Park and Taksim Square have been evacuated and returned to the people," Erdogan told the party faithful.

Erdogan has taken a tough line on the protesters but made an unexpectedly conciliatory gesture when he held his first talks with Taksim Solidarity representatives on Friday.

He offered to suspend the Gezi project pending a court ruling on its legality, if protesters agreed to leave.

But the group rejected the olive branch, saying the government had failed to address all their demands, which include a call for arrested demonstrators to be released and for police chiefs in cities that saw clashes to be sacked.

The United States and other Western allies, along with human rights groups, have widely criticised Erdogan's handling of the crisis.

- AFP

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