ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish riot police in Istanbul fired water cannons and teargas on Wednesday to disperse tens of thousands of May Day protesters, some of whom threw stones at security forces as they tried to breach barricades to reach the city’s main square.
The city’s governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, said 22 police officers and three civilians were wounded in the clashes.
Roughly half of Istanbul’s 40,000-strong police force was drafted in to the center of the city to block access to Taksim Square, earlier placed off limits by authorities to a march organized by trade unions.
Avni said the clashes had been instigated by “radical” groups numbering a total of 3,500 people who threw stones, metal objects and Molotov cocktails at police lines. A total of 72 arrests were made during the day, he added.
A Reuters photographer said security had been tightened around the office of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in the district of Besiktas a short way from Taksim, where the heaviest clashes took place. Erdogan was not in the office at the time.
The incidents followed the pattern of past years, when May Day demonstrations in Turkey’s largest city have often been marked by clashes between police and protesters.
Dozens of people celebrating May Day were killed in Taksim in 1977 when unknown gunmen opened fire on the crowds, although in the last three years protests have been largely peaceful.
Unlike other rallies throughout Europe on Wednesday aimed at protesting against government austerity measures, crowds in Turkey turned out to celebrate international labor day and call for better working rights.
Turkey has largely weathered the economic crisis that has swept through much of Europe, including its neighbor Greece, enjoying steady growth over the past decade.
But many employees, as well as rights groups, say workers in Turkey are denied their basic rights to organize in trade unions, bargain collectively and take strike action, particularly in the public sector.
Turkey’s trade union movement was severely weakened following a coup in 1980, when martial law was imposed and all trade unions were outlawed following years of unrest in Turkey with left- and right-wing groups clashing daily on the streets.
Other marches took place in major cities, including the capital Ankara, but they appeared to pass off peacefully.
By late afternoon, most of the crowds in Istanbul had dispersed. Major roads, bridges and bus routes, which had been closed for several kilometers around Taksim in an attempt to keep people away, were later opened.
May 1, a traditional workers’ day holiday across most of Europe, was canceled as a national holiday in Turkey following the 1980 coup, but was reinstated in 2010.
Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall; Writing by Jonathon Burch