90 hurt in Labour Day clashes between police and protesters in Istanbul

Crowds try to defy ban on observing May 1 at the traditional site which has also been the centre of anti-government protests over the past year.
Protesters wearing gas and hard hats take cover as riot police use a water cannon to disperse a May Day rally in Taksim Square in Istanbul. Bulent Kilic / AFP / May 1, 2014
Protesters wearing gas and hard hats take cover as riot police use a water cannon to disperse a May Day rally in Taksim Square in Istanbul. Bulent Kilic / AFP / May 1, 2014

ISTANBUL // At least 90 people were injured as riot police in Istanbul used water cannon and tear gas against thousands of protesters who tried to defy a ban on May Day demonstrations.

After a final warning, hundreds of riot police moved on the crowd seeking to breach barricades leading to Taksim Square, the centre of anti-government protests over the past, which was declared off limits to Labour Day demonstrators.

Smoke rose above the Besiktas district, home to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office, following the police charge.

The Istanbul governor’s office said that 90 people, including 19 police officers were hurt and 142 were arrested across the city as police clashed with flag-waving and balaclava-wearing protesters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

In the capital Ankara, police fired volleys of tear gas and jets of water on hundreds of protesters trying to march to the Kizilay Square, also declared off limits.

In Istanbul’s Besiktas district, Mahmut Tanal, a member of parliament from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, was beaten by police who tried to push him away from a water cannon truck.

“This is a picture that you can only see in countries which are governed by dictator regimes,” Mr Tanal said. He said he would sue both Mr Erdogan and the interior minister over the incident.

About 40,000 police officers as well as dozens of water cannon trucks and armoured vehicles were reported to have been deployed throughout Istanbul, with roughly half that number drafted into the centre to cordon off all the avenues, streets and alleys around Taksim Square.

Public transport was paralysed in the sprawling city of more than 13 million as the authorities blocked roads, cancelled ferry services and closed metro stations in a bid to cope with two crowds of demonstrators on either side of the Bosphorus.

“Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance,” they chanted, a slogan heard often during huge anti-government protests that swept the country in June last year.

“Hand in hand against fascism.”

Mr Erdogan warned protesters last week to “give up hopes” of meeting on Taksim and suggested another venue on the outskirts of Istanbul, but activists and leftist unions rejected the idea and vowed to ignore the ban.

The governor of Istanbul, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, said on Wednesday that the ban was based on intelligence indicating “illegal terrorist groups” were planning unrest at Taksim.

The TURK-IS labour confederation was however allowed into the square to lay wreaths in memory of 34 people killed when unknown gunmen fired on a peaceful crowd during a 1977 May Day protest.

The union organised another May Day rally in Istanbul, in Kadikoy Square on the Asian side of the city.

“May Day is the celebration of the people and workers. We will not give up even if it means sacrificing our lives,” said Sema Kalin, 29, a member of the Communist Party Of Turkey. “Tayyip should be afraid of us.”

Taksim Square was only opened to May Day rallies in 2009, ending a three-decade ban brought on by the 1977 tragedy.

Parliament reinstated May Day as a national holiday in 2009 and decided to fully open the square to celebrations, only to ban it again last year citing renovation work.

Violent protests between police and May Day protesters last year were followed weeks later by a wave of nationwide protests that snowballed into one of the biggest challenges to Mr Erdogan’s 11-year rule.

Eight people died and 8,000 were injured in the protests, which began when police cracked down heavily on a peaceful campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park – adjacent to Taksim – from redevelopment, earning Turkey a harsh rebuke from its Western allies.

Sporadic protests have continued against controversial measures taken by Mr Erdogan in response to a massive corruption scandal implicating key government allies, including an internet crackdown that saw Twitter banned for two weeks.

Despite the protests, the corruption scandal and Mr Erdogan’s perceived authoritarianism, the premier’s AKP party scored a resounding victory in March 30 local elections, winning 45 per cent of the vote.

* Agence France-Presse

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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