The protesters had been warned time and again but when the police intervention finally came, it came suddenly, in a haze of acrid tear gas, confused screams and trampled tents.

Within minutes, the occupation of Istanbul's Gezi Park was over.

The clouds of white smoke still lingered when dozens of riot police in gas masks, backed by water cannon, stormed the park, the focal point of nationwide protests against Turkey's Islamic-rooted government.

The thousands of campers who had turned the green patch into a carnival-like site scrambled to escape, coughing and covering their faces as they ran, cutting a swathe through rows of colourful tents and scattered items of clothing.

Police trampled what remained, cracking tent poles and tearing down banners. A tambourine lay untouched in the grass.

It was 9:30 pm (1830 GMT) on day 16 of the occupation. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing the biggest challenge yet to his decade-long rule, had had enough.

"Put down your stones," a police officer told a group of startled protesters, their hands empty, as the boom of another salvo of tear gas echoed around them.

In their panic, hundreds sought refuge in the up-scale hotels bordering the park in Turkey's largest city. In the five-star Divan Hotel, stunned demonstrators caught their breath in the elegant lobby. Outside the door, a truck-mounted water cannon took aim and fired, dousing the hotel entrance.

Inside, a volunteer nurse rubbed a soothing ointment on a protester's naked torso, his skin bright red. "It's a reaction to the chemicals in the water cannon," the first aider explained.

Another injured man, gasping for air, was carried in by two volunteer medics. A woman rushed to his aid with an inhaler.

At the nearby Hilton, the scene was similar, with hundreds milling around the reception desk as hotel guests looked on, unnerved.

Suddenly, around 20 riot police burst into the lobby, sparking an uproar. "What the hell are you doing? You have no right to enter here," a guest bellowed.

The officers ignored him and tried to arrest a couple of demonstrators before hotel security personnel intervened. The officers left, the sound of boos ringing in their ears.

In Gezi Park, police officers had established a security cordon. A bulldozer was guided in to remove the burnt-out, graffiti-covered wreck of a car.

City cleaning crews in their green and yellow uniforms fanned out, ready to remove all trace of the protest that rocked the country.

"They took our goggles and gas masks," Mey Elbi, a yoga teacher, said as she clambered down the steps that lead out of the park. "I told them: 'Please, I have asthma', but they didn't care."

"I won't give up," the 39-year-old vowed. "We're angry, this is not over. The world has seen that together, we can stand up to Tayyip."

Nearby, volunteer medic Elif, wearing a white blouse, approached, her face stern. "I was working in the main field hospital inside the camp. They threw tear gas grenades into the hospital," she said.

"We suffered badly. They took our masks and goggles, saying we wouldn't need them anymore," the 45-year-old said.

A stone's throw away, demonstrators clustered in narrow alleys, running to the action and away from it, challenging the police in tireless cat-and-mouse games.

In the main Istiqlal shopping street, hundreds braved the water cannon, greeting each salvo of water with bursts of applause, as the truck advanced slowly, but relentlessly, pushing the protesters further away from Gezi Park.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]