Istanbul: Hundreds of riot police overran improvised protest barricades at Istanbul's Taksim Square on Tuesday, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon in running battles with those who have been occupying the area for more than a week.
The police raid, which came on the 12th day of nationwide protests, sparked clashes with groups of protesters well into the afternoon. Most protesters who had been on the square fled into the adjacent Gezi Park, where hundreds have been camping out to try to stop a development project that would cut down trees in the park.
Bulldozers immediately began dismantling some of the barricades and makeshift shelters set up on the square. By afternoon, the clashes had extended to the very edge of Gezi Park, with acrid gear gas covering its sides.
Several people were rushed on stretchers to a first aid station manned by protesters in the park before being taken to ambulances. Others were carried, overcome by tear gas.
A peaceful demonstration against the redevelopment of Gezi Park has morphed into a test of the authority of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The unrest was inspired in part by what some see as his increasingly authoritarian style of governing and his perceived attempts to impose a religious and conservative lifestyle in a country with secular laws.
Erdogan, a devout Muslim, says he is committed to Turkey's secular laws and denies charges of autocracy.
Three people have died - two protesters and a policeman - and more than 5,000 have been treated for injuries or the effects of tear gas during the protests. The government says 600 police officers have also been injured.
Throughout the protests, Erdogan has struck a defiant tone, vowing to press ahead with the Taksim redevelopment plans, dismissing the protesters as extremists and the protests as undemocratic plots to topple his government, which was elected with 50 percent support in 2011.
He continued in the same vein on Tuesday, speaking in Ankara as the massive police operation unfolded in Istanbul.
"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. 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 said.
"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," he added.
He insisted the protests were part of a conspiracy against the government.
The protesters, he said, " are being used by some financial institutions, the interest rate lobby and media groups to (harm) Turkey's economy and (scare away) investments."
He added: "I want everyone there to see the big picture, to understand the game that is being played and I especially invite them to evacuate (Taksim and Gezi Park). I expect that of them as their prime minister."
Erdogan has called for major pro-government rallies to be held in Ankara and Istanbul this weekend.
"We are not trying to say look we are greater, we are more populous. We are going to the rallies to ensure that the voice of silent masses is heard," he said.
The government announced late Monday that Erdogan would meet with some of the Gezi Park protesters on Wednesday, but that authorities would not allow "illegal" demonstrations to continue.
In Taksim, police addressed the protesters through loudspeakers, insisting they had no intention of moving into the park, but needed to clear the square and take down protest banners. They appealed for calm, saying they did not want to use tear gas.
But in his speech, Erdogan implied the park would not be allowed to be occupied for long.
"I am sorry but Gezi Park is for taking promenades, not for occupation," he said, referring to the meaning of the word Gezi, which translates as promenade.
Clashes broke out on the edge of the square between riot police and small groups of protesters throwing fireworks, firebombs and stones at the police water cannon trucks, with authorities responding with tear gas and jets of water. The vast majority of protesters, most of who remained in the park, were peaceful.
Unsuspecting commuters emerging from the square's metro station ran for cover, aided through the clouds of acrid chemicals by protesters offering them antacid solution in spray bottles.
One protester said he joined the protest in Gezi Park because his cousin was beaten by police during the initial clampdown.
"I'm here because I'm trying to defend my human rights," said protester Kenan Agac. "I'm not against police but his morning they came and threw tear gas."
Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said the police operation aimed to remove the posters and banners hanging at Taksim, some of which belonged to outlawed groups, that were damaging Istanbul's international image.
He said clashes erupted with "marginal groups" that had thrown fireworks and firebombs and had set one police vehicle alight, and he reassured people holding peaceful protests at Gezi Park that they would not be touched.
"I would like to say one more time that there is no question of any (police) intervention at Gezi Park," he said, and accused those clashing with police of trying to provoke wider clashes at Taksim.
He added that a number of protesters were detained.
But protesters were skeptical.
"Of course nobody believes the police or the governor when he says police will not interrupt the gathering in Gezi Park," said Tarsu Orzyurt. "We saw policemen telling us 'come to the street and don't be afraid,' then they shoot at us (with tear gas). So nobody believes them."