Istanbul protesters fail in bid to take Taksim Square

Protest: police walk past burning debris in the Cihangir district of Istanbul. Photo: Kate Geraghty Blockade: police officers blocked off Taksim Square. Photo: Kate Geraghty

A man protests in front of a police line in Taksim Square Photo: Kate Geraghty

Changed crowd-control tactics by Turkish police left Istanbul dazed on Saturday evening. But there were no deaths, only few injuries and fewer than 40 arrests as thousands of protesters surged against police lines in a failed bid to take central Taksim Square.

The protesters’ objective was to occupy the square and adjoining Gezi Park, where brutal police suppression of protests a year ago sparked nationwide outrage.

Beginning peacefully on May 31, 2013, the protesters’ first objective was to block government plans to refashion the park as a mall, but the police crackdown spawned protests against the government on a portfolio of issues – and when the dust had settled eight protesters were dead and thousands wounded.

On Saturday, as many as 30,000 police, many of them in civilian garb, were flown and bussed in from across the country to take up positions around the square. Before any protesters could make their way to the square all access was blocked.

Police on the lines were overheard urging each other “calm, calm” and in many cases they opted to wait out the chanting protesters rather than resort to the tactics that caused a national explosion of anti-government anger 12 months earlier.

Fairfax Media observed a teenager exiting a local hospital, clutching an icepack to the side of his head where he claimed he had been hit by a teargas canister. An ambulance was seen speeding into the midst of protesters on Istiklal Street, a key tourist strip that runs off Taksim Square, possibly to deal with several injuries reported by local media after a water cannon smashed the glass panels in a street vendor’s trolley.

Earlier Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to taunt the protesters, telling them: “You’ll not be able to come to those places like you did last year.”

Mr Erdogan, who is expected to be a candidate for the Turkish presidency later this year, told a gathering the previous day: “Violence is where there is no thought and opinion. The Gezi people are those who have no thought. They never planted a tree.”

By mid-evening, tourists were making their way back to cafes on the square while police pursued the last of the protesters – some of whom used slingshots to throw stones and lit fires of protest as householders took to their balconies, beating pans and saucepans in solidarity.

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