Turkish police fire tear gas, water cannons to prevent Gezi Park protest

Turkish riot police use water cannons to disperse protesters near Taksim Square in Istanbul, Monday. Sedat Suna / EPA

ISTANBUL -- Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannons on Monday at demonstrators who tried to defy a closure order and enter Istanbul’s Gezi Park – the epicenter of protests against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government.

The park, part of the city’s Taksim Square, was only open for a few hours after Istanbul's governor allowed people back in, following often violent protests last month against plans to redevelop the area, when riot police ordered it shut ahead of a planned rally.

Hundreds of people were forced to leave before the start of the protest, organized by the Taksim Solidarity group of political parties and non-governmental organizations opposed to the redevelopment.

Police then intervened with water cannons to break up a crowd of several thousand marching along Istanbul's main pedestrian shopping street toward Taksim Square.

Clashes between police and protesters continued late into the evening, with police firing repeated volleys of tear gas at small pockets of demonstrators who fled down side streets.

Shortly before midnight local time (5 p.m. ET) the park was once again opened to the public, even as isolated clashes continued on nearby streets, broadcaster NTV and other media reported.

A spokesman for Taksim Solidarity told a news conference police detained more than 80 people. One seriously wounded person suffered a brain hemorrhage and was being treated at a nearby hospital.

After a police crackdown on a small demonstration on May 31, the Gezi Park protests grew into broader action against what critics see as Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian style of government.

The unrest died down in late June, but on Saturday police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters who again sought to march on Taksim Square.

The protests have been unprecedented in Erdogan's rule, which began in 2002 with the election of his AK Party. He has pushed reforms in the economy and curtailed the power of a military that had toppled four governments in four decades.

Residents sit on the grass as riot police ask them to leave Gezi Park in Istanbul on Monday. Gero Breloer / AP

Opponents argue that during the June unrest he appealed increasingly to Islamist elements of his AK Party faithful.

Soon after Monday’s reopening, hundreds of people converged on the park, strolling along its paths and lounging on benches and newly laid lawn under the shade of trees on a hot Istanbul afternoon.

Small groups, both pro- and anti-government, gathered to discuss the protests and simmering tensions were evident.

"People became brothers here, and it will be very crowded tonight because we all missed that brotherhood. This park will always be the symbol of people's unity, power and harmony," university student Ozer Sari, 22, told Reuters.

But 54-year-old retiree Abdullah Dogan dismissed the idea that the protests were about protecting the park.

"This was about overthrowing the government, a government which did its duty and took over the park, cleaned it and returned it to the people in better shape," he said.

Four people were killed and 7,500 wounded in last month's police crackdown, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

A Turkish court has canceled the Taksim Square redevelopment project, including the construction of the replica barracks, although the authorities can appeal against the ruling.

The ruling marked a victory for the coalition against the project and a blow for Erdogan, who stood firm against protests and riots he said were stoked by terrorists and looters.

Erdogan has said he would wait for the judicial process to be completed before proceeding with the Taksim plans, one of several large projects for Istanbul, including a major airport, a large Mosque and a canal to ease Bosphorus traffic.

If Turkey's top administrative court subsequently rules in favor of the development on appeal, Erdogan has still pledged to hold a referendum in Istanbul on the government's plan. But he will drop the project if the court rejects it.