ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called for an immediate end on Saturday to the fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years, as protesters clashed with riot police in Istanbul for a second day.
Erdogan vowed to push ahead with the redevelopment of the city’s central Taksim Square, a plan which triggered the demonstrations, and said the issue was being used as an excuse to stoke tensions.
Police fired teargas and water cannon to prevent crowds of protesters chanting “unite against fascism” and “government resign” from reaching Taksim, where hundreds were injured in clashes on Friday.
Protesters also clashed with police in the Besiktas neighbourhood after walking across a road bridge over the Bosphorus in another apparent attempt to reach the square.
“Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice,” Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on television.
“Those who have a problem with government’s policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy ... I am asking the protesters to immediately end these actions,” he said.
The protest at Taksim’s Gezi Park started late on Monday after trees were torn up under the redevelopment plan, but has widened into a broader demonstration against Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan has overseen a transformation in Turkey during his decade in power, turning its economy from crisis-prone into Europe’s fastest-growing, and remains by far the country’s most popular politician.
But critics point to his authoritarianism and what they say is his government’s meddling in private life. Tighter restrictions on alcohol sales and warnings against public displays of affection in recent weeks have led to protest. And many Turks are also concerned government policy means Turkey will be dragged into the conflict in Syria by the West.
Medics said close to 1,000 people were injured in the clashes in Istanbul on Friday, the fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years. Half a dozen lost eyes after being hit by gas canisters, the Turkish Doctors’ Association said.
The U.S. State Department said it was concerned by the number of injuries while Amnesty International and the European parliament raised concern about excessive use of police force. Interior Minister Muammer Guler said allegations that police had used disproportionate force would be investigated.
Protests erupted in the capital Ankara and the Aegean coastal city of Izmir late on Friday and there were calls on social media for similar demonstrations in more than a dozen cities on Saturday. (Additional reporting by Evrim Ergin and Can Sezer; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Jon Boyle)