ISTANBUL, Turkey – Protesters swarmed back into Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Tuesday night and were met by tear gas from police who earlier in the day had driven away crowds angered at the rule of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The fresh clashes came despite Erdogan’s warning early in the day that his tolerance for the nearly 2-week-old protests was at an end.
Just before the police, who had pulled back from the square in the early evening, launched dozens of tear gas shells about 8:30 p.m., there was a festive air among the swelling crowds of demonstrators returning to the embattled area. They danced, waved banners and chanted "Erdogan resign."
PHOTOS: Unrest in Turkey continues
The gas sent a wave of panic through the crowd of protesters, who ran in dense gas through side streets and into cafes. Inside one restaurant on Istiklal Street, activists handed out lemons to combat the effects of the gas and diners offered their drinks to the dozens crammed inside.
"We are seeing lots of injuries, mostly from head trauma; a lot of people gagging from tear gas " said a volunteer identified only as Gizem P. at an under-resourced field hospital near Gezi Park aiding protesters. "We only have two doctors here, and almost no medicine."
The demonstrations began as resistance to plans for a shopping mall development in the heart of Istanbul but have swelled into a nationwide challenge to what protesters decry as the prime minister’s autocratic rule.
The government's response, instead of diffusing the situation, is "creating the opposite effect," Faruk Logoglu, deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. "The real intent of the government, since these protests began, is to suppress this movement by any means possible."
"On one hand the government says … we respect your democratic rights -- then they attack with bull force," Logoglu said.
Tuesday’s violence began with a dawn raid at the iconic square, which has seen demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands in recent days; just a few hundred were camped out overnight.
Hundreds of police officers backed by armored vehicles overran improvised barricades and moved into the area. Security forces fired volleys of tear gas and water cannons at the protesters and tore down posters that hung above the square.
A small group of protesters – scarves wrapped around their heads – hurled Molotov cocktails and aimed fireworks at police positioned under a revered statue in the center of Taksim Square. Others set ablaze a vehicle, sending plumes of smoke into the sky.
“To those who … are at Taksim and elsewhere taking part in the demonstrations with sincere feelings, I call on you to leave those places and to end these incidents, and I send you my love,” Erdogan said in a televised address to members of parliament from his Justice and Development Party in the capital, Ankara.
“But for those who want to continue with the incidents I say: 'It's over.' As of now we have no tolerance for them,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “Not only will we end the actions, we will be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists, and no one will get away with it.”
The dawn raid came after several days of calm in the square.
The protesters are made up mostly of middle-class youth largely unaffiliated with any political party. Instead, they represent a fiercely nationalistic and secular current and feel threatened by what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarianism and the ruling party’s increasing focus on Islamic strictures.
Violence has also flared in other cities around the country, notably in Izmir and Ankara. At least two protesters and one police officer have died in the clashes. A doctors union has reported more than 4,000 injured.
Officials initially said that Tuesday morning’s raid was to remove posters from the statue in Taksim Square and the nearby Ataturk Cultural Center and would not affect demonstrators assembled in Gezi Park. However, Interior Minister Muammer Guler later said the “intervention took place to normalize life” at the square, state media reported.
"They told us they would not attack us, then look at what they did today,” said Ertug Akdas, an activist wearing green swimming goggles, as he stood in the center of the square shortly after police withdrew in the early evening. "They came to provoke a fight."
Tuesday’s raid came despite reports that negotiations between the ruling Justice and Development Party and the Gezi Park movement were set to commence. Erdogan was expected to meet with representatives of the protesters Wednesday, though it was not clear after the nighttime clashes if the session would still be held.