Turkey’s prime minister on Saturday called for an immediate end to violent protests which have engulfed Istanbul for two days, in what were one of the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the Islamist-rooted leadership came to power.
Police pulled back from Taksim square, the epicentre of the demonstrations that have left dozens injured and earned Turkey a rare rebuke from its Western allies.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted that “there have been some mistakes, extremism in police response” and that legal action would be taken against officers who added disproportionately.
But he also remained defiant, vowing to push forward with controversial plans to redevelop the iconic Taksim square — the catalyst that had sparked the protests.
As police withdrew, thousands of demonstrators flooded the square, shouting taunts at Erdogan, including “We are here Tayyip, where are you?”, “Government resign” or “Dictator resign”.
What began as an outcry against a local development project has snowballed into widespread anger against what critics say is the government’s increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.
The unrest has spread to other cities across the country, with police on Saturday blocking a group of demonstrators from marching to parliament and the prime minister’s office in Ankara.
“I call on the protesters to stop their demonstrations immediately,” Erdogan said in a speech, as clashes raged for a second day at Taksim square, a popular tourist destination and traditional rallying site in Istanbul.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said the protests had reached a “worrisome level” and called on authorities and the demonstrators to act with restraint.
“We have become one fist,” 33-year-old Ataman Bet said as he swept up shattered glass outside his small coffee shop near Taksim.
He noted that the protestors stemmed from across the political spectrum, and even included Erdogan’s supporters.
“People are angry, I am so proud of them,” he said, calling the damage to his shop a “necessary sacrifice”.
The Istanbul protest began as a peaceful sit-in at Excursion Park across the iconic square.
The demonstrators had been preventing workers from razing the last patch of trees in the commercial area to make way for the restoration of Ottoman era military barracks. Residents fear that the barracks would be turned into a shopping mall.
But it soon took a violent turn, with police firing rounds of tear gas to disperse the protesters.
“We were sitting there around the square and reading a press statement when the police came toward us with riot vehicles, spraying gas,” said one of the protesters, 34-year-old Burak Ozbey.
He said his friend had undergone brain surgery after she was hit in the head on Friday by a gas cannister and remains in critical condition.
Local media reported that Istanbul police were running short of tear gas supplies, and that the units had been warned to use the gas sparingly.
Authorities said a dozen people were being treated in hospitals, but Amnesty International said more than 100 protesters were reportedly injured in clashes.
More than 60 people have been detained over the unrest, according to regional authorities.
Clashes raged during the night, with thousands of people marching through the city, some banging pots and pans as residents shouted support from the windows.
Others held up cans of beer in defiance of a recent law, supported by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which prohibits the sale of alcohol at night and which was seen by critics as the latest sign of creeping conservatism.
“They want to turn this country into an Islamist state, they want to impose their vision all the while pretending to respect democracy,” said one protester in Istanbul, declining to give her name.
The US State Department said Turkey should uphold “fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing.”
The British foreign office urged Turkey “to exercise restraint and not to use tear gas indiscriminately,” in a tweet Saturday.
Erdogan’s populist government is regularly accused of trying to make the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country more conservative.