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Turkish Police Begin Withdrawal After Clashes With Protesters

  • Dorian Jones

Riot police use tear gas to disperse demonstrators during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul, Turkey, June 1, 2013.

Riot police use tear gas to disperse demonstrators during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul, Turkey, June 1, 2013.

Police have withdrawn from Istanbul's Taksim Square, the center of mass protests. The move comes after a second day of clashes between security forces and protestors. The protests, which started over the building of a shopping mall, have turned into a confrontation over the rule of the Prime Minister.

Taksim Square has been the center of two days of clashes between protesters and security forces. Thousands of demonstrators, many waving Turkish flags, filled the square. The police withdrawal is seen as an attempt to defuse an escalating confrontation, although clashes are still occurring in nearby areas.

Throughout Saturday, the center of Istanbul resembled a war zone, with police fighting running battles with demonstrators. Doctors say over 1,000 people have been injured. Speaking Saturday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged the police may have used excessive force, but claimed the protest was an attack on democracy.

He said the parliamentary system fully functions in this country and every method other than elections is anti-democratic.

Riot police clash with demonstrators after they used tear gas and pressurized water in a dawn raid Friday, Turkey, May 31, 2013.

Riot police clash with demonstrators after they used tear gas and pressurized water in a dawn raid Friday, Turkey, May 31, 2013.

The clashes erupted Friday after police forcibly evicted a peaceful sit-in against the building of a shopping mall in a park in the heart of the city. But public outrage over that crackdown has seen the protest evolve into a wider demonstration against the government.

Many demonstrators accuse the government of becoming more authoritarian. Observers say in the last few months security forces have been cracking down hard on public dissent. Last week the government rushed through parliament a controversial law restricting alcohol use, fueling fears the Islamic-rooted ruling party is pursuing a religious agenda, a charge it denies.

The prime minister enjoys strong public support, but is a polarizing figure. The growing violence has put growing pressure on the prime minister with international calls for restraint from many of Ankara's allies continuing to grow, while Turkish President Abdullah Gul described the situation as very worrisome.

In solidarity with the Istanbul demonstrators, protests also broke out in the capital, Ankara, and many other Turkish cities, where protesters have battled with police and chanted slogans against Erdogan's government.

Analysts say the unrest signifies growing discontent over the policies of the Islamist-dominated government, which some accuse of becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Mine Eder, a political science professor at Istanbul's Bogazici University, said the movement is drawing from a broad range of the Turkish population.

"I think is sort of a spontaneous civil movement that started with the ownership of the trees and sort of turned into this 'we've had enough with this government and with this style of governance and with the unwillingness of the government to listen to us,'" said Eder.

Eder said many were frustrated at a perceived decline in freedom of expression following a series of harsh police crackdowns on protests, including at this year's May Day rally. Others, she said, were frustrated at high unemployment rates.

She said the government's response shows it is concerned that the protests could spiral out of control, potentially challenging its rule.

Rights groups have already expressed concern at the authorities' use of force in dealing with the protests. Amnesty International said Friday that the Turkish authorities should "stop using excessive force against peaceful protesters" and called for an investigation. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington believes Turkey's long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

Protesters were initially upset at the proposed development at Istanbul's Gezi Park, next to the square, which they say is one of the few remaining green spots in that part of the city. The park faces demolition to make way for the construction of a shopping center.

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