Turkish Government Offers Conciliatory Moves as Thousands Return to Protest in Taksim

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

ISTANBUL - After a tense night in Istanbul's Taksim, where demonstrators feared the police were about to reclaim the square, thousands of protesters returned on Tuesday morning. At the same time, senior government figures made conciliatory moves toward the demonstrators in the absence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is currently out of the country.

On Monday night, the police came close to the southern edge of Taksim, arriving from the main road leading to the Bosphorus and launched large volleys of tear gas grenades which swept the square. Hundreds of demonstrators ran away from the road, many of them taking shelter in the lobbies of nearby hotels while hundreds of others wearing gas masks remained on the barricades that had been erected across the road from metal fences, burnt-out vehicles and paving stones uprooted from the sidewalk.

Despite fears that the police may take advantage of the chaos to return to the square from where they had retreated on Saturday evening on Erdogan's orders, it did not reach the barricades. Police officers said their aim was to "wear out" the protesters but not to confront them directly.

On Tuesday morning, hundreds who had spent the night in Taksim remained in the square. Those who had gone home to rest began returning toward midday along with first-time protesters. Two developments are expected to swell the number of demonstrators – the decision of a large public workers union with over 240 thousand members to announce a two-day strike and the decision of a number of Istanbul universities to postpone exams. The postponement will allow students who are a major section of the demonstrators to remain in Taksim, backed up by the public workers.

But while in Taksim the police remain outside, in other places throughout Turkey, clashes between demonstrators and police continue, including in the government quarter in the capital Ankara and in Izmir, where the offices of Erdogan's party were set on fire.

Erdogan continues his tour of North Africa, saying Monday in Morocco that matters "are calming down." Meanwhile, other party leaders who remained in Ankara tried to act in a more conciliatory fashion toward the demonstrators. President Abdullah Gul said on Monday that demonstrators had a right to protest and that their "message was received." He was quoted by the official Anatolia news agency saying that "there is nothing more natural than expressing these differences."

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Woman shouts slogans in Istanbul rally.Credit: AP
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Protesters' masks in Istanbul.Credit: Reuters
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Man tries to attack police van in Ankara.Credit: AFP

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, in charge in Erdogan's absence, said at a news conference that the original protest against the building of a shopping center on Gezi Park in the center of Taksim Square was "just and legitimate" and apologized to those protesters who had been injured. At the same time, he denounced the protesters' violence and backed the police saying "they are also sons of Turkey." Arinc offered to meet representatives of the demonstrators.

Leaders of the protests have also begun drafting their demands from the government, which include abandoning the building plans in Taksim, firing the police chiefs who were responsible for the violence and a commitment not to use tear-gas against demonstrators in the future. Another change in the atmosphere was a much wider coverage of the protests Tuesday on main Turkish television channels. In previous days, their coverage was limited and mainly focused on the demonstrators' violence and vandalism, rather than on the heavy-handed police suppression.

The first two official deaths in the demonstrations were recorded Monday when a young protester was killed in Istanbul by a taxi that ploughed into demonstrators and another man was killed in the southern town of Antakya by gunshots fired from an unknown source during a demonstration there. While these are the first deaths acknowledged by the authorities, volunteer medical teams who have been treating casualties in recent days claim that there were additional deaths in the protests.

An anti-government protester runs away from a burning container in Istanbul's Taksim square June 4, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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