Turkish police fired water cannon to prevent park protest

ISTANBUL Mon Jul 8, 2013 2:48pm EDT

Riot police use a water cannon to disperse protesters in central Istanbul July 8, 2013. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Riot police use a water cannon to disperse protesters in central Istanbul July 8, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Murad Sezer

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish police fired teargas and water cannon on Monday at protesters who tried to defy a closure order and enter an Istanbul park at the centre of protests against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government.

Gezi Park was only open for a few hours after Istanbul's governor allowed people back in, following often violent protests last month against plans to redevelop the area, when riot police ordered it shut ahead of a planned rally.

Hundreds of people were forced to leave before the start of the protest organized by the Taksim Solidarity group of political parties and non-governmental organizations opposed to the redevelopment.

Police then intervened with water cannon to break up a crowd of several thousand marching along Istanbul's main pedestrian shopping street towards Taksim Square where the park is located, before firing teargas to break up smaller pockets of protesters.

After a police crackdown on a small demonstration on May 31, the Gezi Park protests grew into broader action against what critics see as Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian style of government.

The unrest died down in late June, but on Saturday police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse protesters who again sought to march on Taksim Square.

The protests have been unprecedented in Erdogan's rule, which began in 2002 with the election of his AK Party. He has pressed significant reforms in the economy and curtailed the power of a military that had toppled four governments in four decades.

Opponents argue that during the June unrest he appealed increasingly to Islamist elements of his AK Party faithful.

Hours before Monday's police intervention, Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu spoke enthusiastically about the park's reopening.

"We have seen with the visit carried out today that all our work has been completed," Mutlu told reporters in the park, which has been spruced up with the planting of new trees, plants and lawns since the protesters were evicted on June 15.

SIMMERING TENSION

Soon after the opening, hundreds of people young and old converged on the park, some strolling along its paths and many lounging on benches and newly laid lawn under the shade of trees on a hot Istanbul afternoon.

Small groups, both pro- and anti-government, gathered to discuss the protests and simmering tensions were evident.

"People became brothers here, and it will be very crowded tonight because we all missed that brotherhood. This park will always be the symbol of people's unity, power and harmony," university student Ozer Sari, 22, told Reuters.

But 54-year-old retiree Abdullah Dogan dismissed the idea that the protests were about protecting the park.

"This was about overthrowing the government, a government which did its duty and took over the park, cleaned it and returned it to the people in better shape," he said.

Taksim Solidarity, which is opposed to the construction of a replica Ottoman era barracks on the site, had called on Sunday for its supporters to hold a public meeting there this evening.

A police official told Reuters they evacuated the park because there were illegal groups inside who planned protests.

Four people were killed and 7,500 wounded in last month's police crackdown, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner pressed Turkey on Monday to investigate reports police used excessive force to contain the protests and punish anyone found guilty.

A Turkish court has canceled the Taksim Square redevelopment project, including the construction of the replica barracks, although the authorities can appeal against the ruling.

The ruling marked a victory for the coalition against the project and a blow for Erdogan, who stood firm against protests and riots he said were stoked by terrorists and looters.

Erdogan has said he would wait for the judicial process to be completed before proceeding with the Taksim plans, one of several large projects for Istanbul, including a major airport, a large Mosque and a canal to ease Bosphorus traffic.

If Turkey's top administrative court subsequently rules in favor of the development on appeal, Erdogan has still pledged to hold a referendum in Istanbul on the government's plan. But he will drop the project if the court rejects it.

(Additional reporting by Can Sezer and Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Alison Williams)

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