Turkish riot police have stormed an Istanbul Gezi park at the centre of two weeks of protests after Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan warned demonstrators that they must leave by today.
Police have fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to clear Taksim and Gezi Park of protesters and prevent them from returning. Sporadic clashes have then been taking place around the area.
It was the first time that police had entered the makeshift tent city in Gezi Park, which has transformed into a national symbol of resistance.
After dispersing demonstrators from nearby Taksim Square, police reportedly began their park eviction shouting: “This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you – evacuate.”
Firing tear gas and water cannon, it took them less than half an hour to bring to an end to the occupation that started 18 days ago.
The news comes hours after Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan demanded the square to be “evacuated,” with protesters subsequently reporting over a hundred injuries, while the governor of Istanbul claimed the number to be closer to thirty.
Afterwards the bulldozers moved in, scooping up debris as crews of workmen tore down banners and tents.
Protesters put up little physical resistance but several people were brought out of the park on stretchers to waiting ambulances, according to reports.
Tayfun Kahraman, a member of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protest movements, told the Associated Press that a number of people in the park had been injured – some from rubber bullets.
He went on to say: “Let them keep the park, we don’t care anymore. Let it all be theirs. This crackdown has to stop. The people are in a terrible state.”
But despite the eviction, thousands of people have reportedly taken to the streets again and have begun building barricades on a main avenue to Taksim Square.
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A witness told Reuters that police fired tear gas canisters into back streets around the square for several hours after the raid to try to prevent crowds from regrouping.
For more than two weeks, hundreds of activists had camped in the park, which adjoins the city’s central Taksim Square where protesters have also gathered.
Mr Erdogan had called on them to withdraw and promised to hold a vote on plans to redevelop the site in a bid to appease them.
But the crowds decided to ignore a final warning to leave after the government failed to meet demands, including the release of detained demonstrators.
A heavy-handed police intervention on May 31 against those protesting against shopping mall redevelopment plans for Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s few green spaces, had sparked the biggest anti-government protests in Turkey in decades.
The protests, which at one point spread to dozens of Turkish cities and towns, turned into a much broader expression of discontent about Mr Erdogan and his government, and what many say is his increasingly authoritarian rule.
Mr Erdogan, who was elected with 50% of the vote for his third term in 2011, vehemently rejects the accusations by protesters and points to his strong support base.
Shortly before riot police launched their operation, Mr Erdogan had threatened protesters in a speech in Sincan, a suburb of the capital Ankara, that is a stronghold of his Justice and Development Party.
“I say this very clearly: either Taksim Square is cleared, or if it isn’t cleared then the security forces of this country will know how to clear it,” he said.
A second pro-government rally in Istanbul is planned for today, although Mr Erdogan has previously said that the rallies are not designed as “an alternative” to the demonstrations at Gezi Park, but part of early campaigning for local elections next March.