ISTANBUL: Turkish police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber pellets on yesterday to stop May Day protesters, some armed with fire bombs, from defying Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and reaching Istanbul’s central Taksim square.
Citing security fears, authorities shut parts of the city’s public transport system, erected steel barricades and deployed thousands of riot police to block access to Taksim, a traditional union rallying point and the focus of weeks of anti-government protests last summer.
Erdogan, who warned last week he would not let labour unions march on Taksim, has cast both last year’s street protests and a corruption scandal dogging his government since December as part of a plot to undermine him.
While it was the unions who called for demonstrations to press workers’ rights and express broad opposition to Erdogan’s government, some of those who clashed more violently with police were from marginal leftist groups.
The Istanbul governor’s office said it had received advanced information that “illegal terror organisations and their extensions” would resort to violence to stoke unrest. On the fringes of a massive security cordon around the square, pockets of protesters played cat and mouse with police in tear gas-shrouded side streets. Demonstrators in surrounding neighbourhoods repeatedly tried to breach police lines blocking the way to Taksim, a normally teeming shopping and tourism district which lay virtually deserted and ringed by security checkpoints.
Bemused tourists, their hotels lining the square, picked their way nervously through police lines, some shepherded by bell boys, their luggage in tow. The Istanbul governor’s office said 90 people were injured, 19 of them police officers, and 142 detained in the unrest, much of which took place early in the day with calm largely returning by the evening. It said police had found eight home-made bombs.
In the working class Okmeydani district, members of leftist groups threw fire bombs and fireworks at security forces, who responded with rubber pellets. Similar clashes erupted in March at the funeral of teenager Berkin Elvan, who had lain in a coma after being wounded in last year’s unrest.
Elvan’s image was displayed on a giant poster on Thursday as some of the protesters chanted “Berkin’s murderer” at police. “This is a day of struggle. We’re not trying to reach Taksim to celebrate but to resist,” said Caglar, 37, a teacher and leftist activist, clutching a scarf to protect against the gas. Police also used water cannon and gas to disperse more than a thousand demonstrators in the capital Ankara, where the centre of the city was on lockdown, with a heavy security presence and police helicopters buzzing overhead.Reuters