Protesters take over Taksim square in Istanbul on Saturday during a demonstration against the demolition of Taksim’s Gezi Park. Thousands flooded the site as police lifted the barricades around the park and began withdrawing from the square. Image Credit: AFP

Istanbul: Protesters and riot police clashed for a second day in Istanbul on Saturday amid raging anti-government demonstrations, one of the biggest challenges Turkey’s Islamist-rooted leadership has faced in its decade in power.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained defiant in the face of the unrest, which has exposed growing discontent with what critics say is his government’s increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.

On Saturday, police fired tear gas at protesters gathering in Taksim Square, the epicentre of the demonstrations that have left dozens of people injured and have earned Turkey a rare rebuke from its ally Washington. Protesters in turn hurled rocks and bottles at the police.

“We have become one fist,” 33-year-old Ataman Bet, said as he swept the shattered glass and burnt plastic in front of his small coffee shop near Taksim.

“This has been everybody — leftist, rightist, even supporters of Erdogan. People are angry, I am so proud of them,” he said, calling the damages to his shop a “necessary sacrifice.”

Erdogan remained defiant in the face of the demonstrations, among the largest against his government since it assumed power in 2002.

“I call on the protesters to stop their demonstrations immediately,” he said. “Police were there yesterday, they’ll be on duty today and also tomorrow because Taksim Square cannot be an area where extremists are running wild.”

What triggered unrest

He also vowed to go through with the plans that sparked the unrest, to raze a park near Taksim and in its place rebuild an Ottoman-era military barracks to be used as a shopping mall.

“We will rebuild the barracks,” Erdogan said, though he added it was not clear whether the new site would then function as a shopping mall.

Thousands of people have poured out into the streets in support of the demonstrators in other Turkish cities, including in the capital Ankara, the western cities of Izmir and Mugla and Antalya in the south.

On Saturday, police blocked a group of demonstrators from marching to parliament and the prime minister’s office in Ankara.

Local media reported that the Istanbul police were running short of tear gas supplies, with walkie-talkie announcements warning the units to use the gas “economically.”

The unrest erupted into anti-government demonstrations after police on Friday moved into Taksim to break up a protest against the razing of a nearby park, the last patch of greenery in the highly commercialised area, with plans to build a shopping mall.

Clashes raged during the night, as thousands of people marched through the city, some banging pots and pans as residents shouted support from the windows.

Defying recent law

Others held up cans of beer in defiance of a recent law, supported by the Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which prohibits the sale of alcohol during nighttime hours and was seen by critics as the latest sign of creeping conservatism.

“They want to turn this country into an Islamist state, they want to impose their vision all the while pretending to respect democracy,” said one woman protester in Istanbul, declining to give her name.

The park’s razing is part of a wider, controversial construction project that aims to turn the area around Taksim — a traditional gathering point for protests and a popular tourist destination — into a pedestrian zone.

Authorities said that a dozen people were being treated in hospitals, but Amnesty International said more than 100 protesters were reportedly injured in clashes.

More than 60 people have been detained as a result of the unrest, according to regional authorities.

In Washington, the State Department said it was concerned about the number of people injured as a result of the protests.

“We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing,” US State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said on Friday.

Erdogan’s populist government, in power for over a decade, is regularly accused of trying to make the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country more conservative.

Turkey at present has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world, with 61 behind bars because of their journalism as of August 1, according to watchdogs. Dozens of lawyers and lawmakers are also in detention, most of them accused of plotting against the government.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a leader of the main opposition the Republican People’s Party (CHP), said: “We want freedoms and democracy in our country.”