Thousands of Turks joined mass anti-government protests which have stretched to over one week, defying Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call to end the worst civil unrest of his decade-long rule.
Reports of renewed riot police force against protesters in Ankara surfaced on Saturday evening, with tear gas and water cannon apparently sprayed at people gathering in the capital’s Kizilay Square.
In Istanbul meanwhile, crowds were said to be at their highest levels on the ninth straight day of protests, with football fans and feminists taking to the streets.
People began arriving in the city’s Taksim Square in the morning with food and blankets to settle in for demonstrations, adding to the growing tent city in nearby Gezi Park.
“A week ago, I could never imagine myself sleeping out on the streets of Istanbul,” said 22-year-old Aleyna, wrapped up under a blanket with a stray kitten, pointing to her dirty clothes. “Now I don’t know how I can ever go back.”
But the lingering rallies, heaviest in Turkey’s main tourist hubs such as Istanbul’s main Taksim Square, are starting to negatively impact business for many.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Istanbul, said that “the whole area houses hotels, restaurants and shopping malls, and there are concerns that tourism might decline if the unrest continues.
Huseyin Celik, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s AK party, said local and presidential elections would be held next year as planned, and a general election in 2015. “The government is running like clockwork. There is nothing that necessitates early elections,” he said after a meeting of the party’s executive committee in Istanbul on Saturday.
The political turmoil erupted after police reacted heavily to a small campaign to save Gezi Park from demolition, and spiralled into nationwide protests against Erdogan and the AKP, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Police have used tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have injured thousands of people and left three dead, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Faced with international criticism, Erdogan on Friday accused Western allies of double standards after EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule urged a “swift and transparent” probe into police abuses in Turkey, a longtime EU hopeful.
Erdogan issued a sharp retort, saying those involved in a similar protest would “face a harsher response” in any European country.
The prime minister has previously dismissed the demonstrators as “looters” manipulated by extremists.
But demonstrators dug in their heels overnight, with thousands massing peacefully in a festive Taksim Square, while in other Turkish cities they took to the streets, banging pots and pans as they marched in protest.