Activists defy bulldozers to block demolition of city’s ‘last public green space’.
Turkish authorities have arrested dozens of people protesting in the fiercest anti-government demonstrations the country has witnessed in years, with riot police firing tear gas on demonstrators in Istanbul and Ankara.
At least 60 people were detained on Friday as they protested in Istanbul at a rally which began over the demolition of a park, but which turned into a broader protest against what they see as an increasingly authoritarian government.
“The protesters are saying that this is not about trees anymore,” said Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from Istanbul.
Several thousand people had attended the Istanbul protest, and there is “an assortment of tear gas cannisters everywhere” in the city’s main Taksim Square, she said.
More than 100 people were injured, some left lying on the ground unconscious, while two people were hospitalised with injuries to the head, an AFP photographer witnessed.
In the most severe case, a Turkish national of Palestinian origin had to undergo brain surgery after fractures to her skull, but she was doing well in intensive care, according to Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu.
He said in televised remarks that an investigation was underway and people had been detained for “provoking violence.”
The demonstrators had occupied the Gezi park since May 28 to prevent bulldozers from completing the demolition, part of the government’s redevelopment plan for central Taksim Square.
In a victory for the protesters later on Friday, an Istanbul court ordered the temporary suspension of the project to uproot the trees.
But the protest spread to the capital Ankara, where about 5,000 people gathered in a park, and with police there firing tear gas to disperse crowds trying to reach the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party.
The demonstrators, mostly young supporters of the opposition Republican People’s Party, had planned to protest against new laws restricting the sale of alcohol and chanted: “Everywhere is resistance, Everywhere is Taksim.”
The rallies also spread to two locations in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir.
Several protesters in Istanbul were injured when a wall they climbed collapsed during a police chase, and a prominent journalist was hospitalised after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister, the private Dogan news agency reported.
Rageh said many protesters complained that the police were using water cannon and firing teargas indiscriminately.
“We saw a lot of tourists running to different directions. People are trying to take refuge at coffee shops and the homes around the area. Police have been firing tear gas in different directions,” she said.
“Certainly the predominant complaint here is that police are firing teargas indiscriminately.
“But they are also coming under attack from protesters. You can see them with rocks and there are injuries here. People are very angry.”
Many of the protesters are angry at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government, which some Turks argue has been displaying increasingly authoritarian and uncompromising tendencies in its third successive term in office.
Last week, the government enacted a law restricting the sale and advertising of alcohol which has alarmed secular Turks who fear an encroachment on more liberal lifestyles.
Earlier this week, the government went ahead with a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of a disputed third bridge across the Bosphorus Strait which some say will destroy the few remaining green areas of the city.
It also named the bridge after a controversial Ottoman sultan believed to have ordered a massacre of a minority Shia Muslim group, instead of choosing a more unifying figure.
Gezi Park protestors held a large poster with a caricature depicting Erdogan as an Ottoman sultan with a caption that read: “The people won’t yield to you.”
Erdogan dismissed the protesters’ demands for the park’s protection, saying the government would go ahead with renovation plans “no matter what they do”.
The forestry minister said more trees would be planted than those uprooted at Gezi and has defended the government’s environmental record.
Friday’s dawn raid was the latest in a series of aggressive crackdown on protests. Human rights activists accuse Turkish police of using inordinate force to break up protests.
On Friday, demonstrators affected by the gas sought shelter at a luxury hotel at Taksim and were tended by guests.
Police removed tents and demonstrators’ other belongings and mounted barricades around the park.