Tear gas, water cannon, and fireworks in Istanbul

The mixture of tear gas and fireworks filling the streets of Istanbul is the result of a clash between riot police and tens of thousands of protesters, as reported by CNN:

[Taksim Square], home to days of protests over what demonstrators call an increasingly authoritarian government, was filed with chaos. Hugely loud bangs echoed through the area — likely the result of stun grenades. Thousands packed back into Taksim Square, surrounding a large bonfire that they were fueling with whatever they could pick ups.

Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan’s government had said it would allow protesters to remain in Gezi Park as long as they were peaceful. But CNN’s Arwa Damon, inside the park, saw police shoot tear gas canisters in Tuesday.

“There’s a spirit of determination” and “solidarity” in the park, Damon said. Throughout the day, protesters had called on each other to try to keep things calm and to keep protests peaceful.

The demonstrators reportedly threw Molotov cocktails at armored cars; the police dropped tear gas and opened up their water cannons; the protesters began shooting off fireworks as an act of defiance.  (A CBS News correspondent said there were “strong signs” they also used rubber bullets.)  One police vehicle was seen using its water cannon to put out another water-cannon-equipped vehicle that had been set ablaze by a firebomb.

There have been demonstrators camped in Taksim Square for the better part of two weeks, with smaller protests also taking place in other cities, including the capital of Ankara.  Previous clashes with the police have reportedly claimed four lives, including one policeman.  Almost 5,000 injuries have been reported by the Turkish Medical Association.

This all started as a protest against plans to bulldoze the last park in central Istanbul to build a shopping mall, but it’s grown into a general expression of popular discontent with the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.  He’s not budging, and to judge from the applause at his speech, he’s still got plenty of supporters:

“We will never allow people to push things to us, force things to us,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a gathering of his own Justice and Development Party in parliament. “And we will never force things either.”

After touting a long list of achievements in the country, which he credited to his government, Erdogan turned to the street demonstrators in Istanbul, who for more than a week have called for him to step down.

“They say the prime minister is harsh. The prime minister is firm,” Erdogan said of their grievances against him. “I’m sorry,” he answered them. “This prime minister is not going to change.”

Throughout Tuesday morning, smoke from tear gas and fireworks wafted through the air at Taksim Square as the armored vehicles shoved away makeshift barriers set up by the demonstrators.

Several protesters linked arms to form a human chain and prevent the police advance. But when police deployed multiple canisters of tear gas, they scattered again.

“If you stop throwing rocks, we will not use tear gas,” the police told the raucous group over loud speakers. “We don’t want you to get hurt; please obey.”

Erdogan, who has prevailed in the past three elections, challenged the protesters to defeat him at the ballot box.  The UK Telegraph says he has been suggesting the protests were “engineered by vandals, terrorist elements, and unnamed foreign forces.”  Reuters adds that he has been blaming the demonstrators for turmoil in the Turkish markets, describing this as a “systematic project” to “distort Turkey’s image.”

Earlier promises from the governor of Istanbul that the protests would be allowed to continue appear to have been overridden.  Erdogan was scheduled to meet with protest leaders on Wednesday, but it’s uncertain if that meeting will take place on schedule after today’s violence.

CBS News has some more details about the complaints of the demonstrators:

The protests grew into wider demonstrations against what many see as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of governing and his attempts to impose a religious and conservative lifestyle in the country which has secular laws. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, says he is committed to Turkey’s secular laws and denies charges of autocracy.

[…] Police took down large banners that had been hung by protesters on a building on the edge of the square. They replaced them with a large Turkish flag and a banner with a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the beloved founder of the secular republic 89 years ago after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Among the other government initiatives infuriating the protesters, according to a rundown at the Telegrapha ban on the sale of alcohol between 10 PM and 6 AM, a prohibition against the sale of alcohol at restaurants located near mosques and schools, a “clampdown on kissing in public,” and an official recommendation that everyone should have at least three children.

Update: The protesters have been complaining about indiscriminate use of riot control equipment by the Turkish police.  One example includes a horrible photo of a man in a wheelchair under fire from a water cannon.