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Riot Police and Protesters Clash in Turkey

  • Reuters

A protester reacts as police fires tear gas during a May Day demonstration in Istanbul, May 1, 2014.

A protester reacts as police fires tear gas during a May Day demonstration in Istanbul, May 1, 2014.

Turkish police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber pellets on Thursday to stop May Day protesters, some armed with fire bombs, from defying Prime Minister 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. The square is a traditional union rallying point and the focus of weeks of anti-government protests last summer.

Erdogan warned last week he would not let labor unions march on Taksim. He 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 unions had 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 advance information that “illegal terror organizations and their extensions” would resort to violence to stoke unrest.

On the fringes of a massive security cordon around the square, pockets of protesters dodged police in side streets shrouded with tear gas.

Not business as usual

Demonstrators in surrounding neighborhoods repeatedly tried to breach police lines blocking the way to Taksim, normally a teeming shopping and tourism district in this city of 15 million. Bemused tourists, some shepherded by bell boys towing their luggage, nervously picked their way through security checkpoints to hotels bordering the square.

The Istanbul governor's office said 90 people were injured, including 19 police officers. It said 142 were detained in the unrest, much of which occurred early in the day with calm largely returning by evening. It said police had found eight homemade 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 Thursday as some 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 Ankara. The capital city’s center was on lockdown, with a heavy security presence and police helicopters buzzing overhead.

Unions defiant

After Erdogan's warning against trying to march on Taksim, the government suggested the May Day gathering should take place at a venue on the city’s outskirts. The unions rejected that idea.

"We will be in Taksim despite the irrational and illegal ban. All roads will lead to Taksim on May Day, and our struggle for labor, equality, freedom, justice and peace will continue,"' the main unions said in a statement ahead of the day of protest.

On the main Istiklal shopping street leading to Taksim, hundreds of police, some in plain clothes, others in riot gear, sat outside shuttered shops. Tourists were searched by police as they tried to enter the area.

"This is supposed to be a friendly place for tourists. This is a terrible way to treat visitors," said Mustafa, from Cairo.

Turkish authorities issued a similar ban last year, leading to thousands of anti-government protesters fighting with police as they tried to breach barricades around the huge square. In previous years, it was a focal point for labor demonstrations.

That violence was followed by mass protests that spread across Turkey late last May, in one of the biggest challenges to Erdogan's rule since his AK Party came to power in 2002.

"Give up your hope of Taksim," Erdogan said at a meeting of his ruling AK Party lawmakers in parliament last week.

The prime minister previously has dismissed protesters as "riff raff" and "terrorists" and pointed to his AK Party's strong showing in elections. The AK Party dominated the electoral map in municipal polls on March 30, retaining control of both Istanbul and Ankara despite the corruption scandal and last summer's unrest.

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