Several dozen Turkish riot police on Tuesday entered the Gezi Park in central Istanbul at the heart of two weeks of protests which have turned into nationwide anti-government demonstrations, an eyewitness said.
The riot police were gathered in an area on the fringes of the park and there were was no immediate sign of them moving to take apart tents and shelters or remove banners and flags.
Earlier Tuesday, hundreds of police in riot gear forced through barricades in Istanbul's central Taksim Square pushing many of the protesters who had occupied the square for more than a week into a nearby park.
Police briefly fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets prompting many of the protesters to flee the square into Gezi Park, where scores had been camping.
But there were running battles at one edge of the square between police and some groups of protesters who fired fireworks, firebombs and stones at police water cannon. Police made frequent announcements through loudspeakers, asking the group to stop attacking police and saying they did not want to use tear gas, before then firing the tear gas. A water cannon could be seen dousing another police vehicle that was set alight by a firebomb.
The police clampdown on Taksim Square came on the 12th day of nationwide protests that were sparked by a violent police crackdown May 31 on a peaceful sit-in at a park in the square by people who were trying to prevent a redevelopment project that would replace the green space with a replica Ottoman Barracks.
The protests grew into wider demonstrations against what many see as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian style of governing and his attempts to impose a religious and conservative lifestyle in the country which has secular laws. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, says he is committed to Turkey's secular laws and denies charges of autocracy.
Demonstrators had manned the barricades and prepared for a possible intervention when officers began massing in the area Tuesday morning.
Police took down large banners that had been hung by protesters on a building on the edge of the square. They replaced them with a large Turkish flag and a banner with a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the beloved founder of the secular republic 89 years ago after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Huseyin Avni Mutlu, the governor for Istanbul, said in a message issued on his Twitter account that the police operation was to dismount the banners hung on the building and at a monument on the square. He said people occupying the park at the square would not be touched.
As police clashed with activists near a side of the square where construction has already started, bulldozers and garbage trucks began cleaning up some of the barricades on the square. A group of protesters were seen at another corner of the square, apparently trying to negotiate with police.
Some protesters were seen trying to build another small barricade on the square but were repelled by tear gas.
People coming off the metro in the middle of the square ran for cover. Protesters offered them antacid solution in bottles of spray to help protect them from the gas.
The government announced after a Cabinet meeting late Monday that Erdogan would meet with some of the peaceful Gezi Park protesters but that authorities would not allow "illegal" demonstrations to continue.
A statement from Mutlu's office said Monday the banners of various groups taking part in the protests were making the square look as though it was under "occupation" and was "negatively affecting our country's image in the eyes of the world opinion and leading to reaction from within the society."
Before the police action, the protests appeared to be on the wane with the smallest number of demonstrators in the past 12 days gathering in Taksim on Monday night. The protesters occupying Gezi Park had remained, however.
Smaller protests occurred in Ankara too, with about 5,000 people demonstrating. Police there have used water cannon and tear gas to break up demonstrations almost every night.
Three people have died and more than 5,000 have been treated for injuries or the effects of gas during the protests. The government says 600 police officers have also been injured.
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