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Turkish leader defends crackdown on protests

Antigovernment demonstrations end after 18 days

Protesters fled amid tear gas during clashes in Istanbul on Sunday. The park in Taksim Square that was the focus of the demonstrations was cleared Saturday night.

Vassil Donev/European Press photo Agency

Protesters fled amid tear gas during clashes in Istanbul on Sunday. The park in Taksim Square that was the focus of the demonstrations was cleared Saturday night.

ISTANBUL — Government forces moved swiftly Sunday to quash the scattered vestiges of the protest movement against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, chasing down antigovernment protesters across the city, after the park at the center of the unrest was forcefully cleared the night before.

Attempts by protesters to regroup and converge again on Gezi Park in Taksim Square on Sunday were rebuffed by volleys of tear gas.

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Meanwhile, tens of thousands of government supporters, many arriving on buses from around the country, rallied Sunday in Istanbul. Speaking at the rally, Erdogan all but declared an end to the protests, which have presented him with his gravest political challenge in more than 10 years in power.

“I said we were at an end, that it was unbearable,” Erdogan told the crowd, according to the Associated Press. “The operation was carried out and it was cleaned up. It was my duty as prime minister.”

Just days after he appeared ready to compromise, Erdogan’s patience appears to have run out. After 18 days of demonstrations, he ordered riot police to storm Taksim Square on Saturday, setting off a night of chaos in downtown Istanbul that stretched into Sunday.

It is not yet clear how the public will react. Erdogan remains popular in many parts of the country, though the unrest has exposed severe weaknesses in his government. The protests, which were sparked by complaints against the planned destruction of Gezi Park for an Ottoman-themed shopping mall, have grown into broader anger and nationwide protests over what critics call Erdogan’s authoritarian style.

Opposition leaders have vowed to press on, and the crackdown is showing signs of backfiring.

On Sunday, two of Turkey’s largest trade unions announced that they would hold a one-day strike Monday to protest the crackdown on demonstrators in Taksim Square. It was the first time the unions had sided publicly with the protesters.

On Sunday afternoon, police had cordoned off Taksim Square, obstructing pedestrian and car traffic. At least 14 armored anti-riot vehicles were parked in the center of the square, while two anti-riot trucks capable of firing tear gas and water cannons were nearby, with police standing beside.

In Turkey’s capital, Ankara, police fired water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas at protesters, injuring at least four, the Associated Press reported.

And in an apparent escalation by the government, Turkish television showed police Sunday detaining medical personnel who had been aiding wounded protesters.

By 3 a.m. Sunday, the police were chasing protesters in the streets in Istanbul near the contested park, firing tear gas, water cannons, and, according to many demonstrators, rubber bullets. Some protesters hurled rocks and bottles, but most were attempting to march peacefully to Taksim Square.

One protester in the park, who gave only his first name, Deniz, said, “They fired sound bombs first, and then the tear gas came, and we were caught totally off guard. It was as if they were trying to kill us, not evacuate the park.”

Erdogan is supported by roughly half the population, and the other half is a cross-section of secularists, liberals, urban intellectuals, and minorities who are divided in their political views but are increasingly united in opposition to what they view as Erdogan and his Islamic allies’ attempts to impose their views on the country.

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