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Turkish unions march in support of Istanbul protesters

ISTANBUL — Riot police in Istanbul fired water cannons and tear gas Monday to disperse pockets of protesters on the sidelines of a demonstration called by labor groups hoping to capitalize on weeks of activism to register broader discontent.

Two major labor groups urged their members to hold a one-day strike and participate in demonstrations in response to a police crackdown against activists who have led protests centered on Istanbul's Taksim Square and nearby Gezi Park in recent weeks.

A rally in Ankara, the capital, took place peacefully, and there were no immediate signs that the police operation in Istanbul had provoked major clashes in the afternoon. Earlier, Turkey's interior minister warned that anyone joining unlawful demonstrations would “bear the legal consequences.”

Meanwhile, in a sign of tension between rival groups, images from the Dogan news agency showed crowds of government supporters facing down some protesters. Some chanted, “The hands targeting the police should be broken.”

The government has expressed increasing exasperation over more than two weeks of street demonstrations, including a sit-in in Gezi Park and occasional clashes between stone-throwing youths and riot police.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc floated the prospect of authorities calling in the military.

In a television interview, Arinc stopped short of saying troops would be deployed or a state of emergency declared, according to the state news agency Anadolu. But he said that if the police operations weren't enough to calm the situation, local governors “can benefit from Turkey's military forces” under the law.

Monday's labor-led demonstrations had a more structured feel compared with the counterculture-style sit-in at Gezi Park and spontaneous protests in other cities.  Middle-aged men banged drums and chanting women sat on the ground, hands clasped.

Behind the strikes were the KESK confederation of public-sector workers and DISK, a confederation of labor unions from industries including transport, construction, healthcare and the media. Together they say they represent 330,000 workers. Small unions representing professionals such as dentists, doctors and engineers also joined in.

However, strikes often have little visible impact in Turkey, a country of about 75 million, and the call to walk off the job Monday had limited fallout beyond the demonstrations.

The standoff between police and protesters began as a rally over the government's plan to tear down trees and redevelop Gezi Park. But a police crackdown May 31 lit a fuse, transforming the movement into a broader protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.

His opponents have grown suspicious of what they consider a gradual erosion of freedoms and secular Turkish values under his Islamic-rooted party's government.

Erdogan has been praised for shepherding Turkey to strong economic growth as many other world economies lagged. But his government's handling of the protests has dented his international reputation.

He has blamed the protests on a nebulous plot to destabilize his government and repeatedly lashed out at foreign and social media coverage.


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