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UK’s Foreign Office has warned Britons to avoid areas where violent protests are ongoing across Turkey, including the centre of Istanbul, where thousands of people thronged Taksim Square.
An environmental demonstration in Istanbul on Friday quickly spiralled into a wider, violent nationwide protests against what critics state is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian government.
The Foreign Office advised Britons to avoid the areas where protests were taking place in Istanbul, Ankara and several other cities.
“Demonstrations are taking place in Istanbul and in other cities across Turkey, including Ankara. Police are using tear gas and water cannons in response. We advise British nationals to avoid all demonstrations,” the Foreign Office said.
“Demonstrations occur regularly in major cities and have the potential to turn violent.”
Tear gas and water cannon were initially used against hundreds of people trying cross the Bosphorus Bridge to reach Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Saturday.
But police then stepped aside and allowed the crowd, which by then had swelled to several thousand, to enter the square. One witness reported that up to 40,000 people had gathered near the bridge.
The initial protests were triggered by the apparently heavy-handed tactics of police trying to break-up a peaceful sit-in at Gezi Park in Taksim square on Friday. The protesters were campaigning against a redevelopment project for the park that is designed to reduce congestion in the square – but would involve trees being uprooted.
The unrest soon escalated and became focused on what protesters view as an increasingly Islamist government, spreading to several other Turkish cities.
A human rights group said hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police that lasted overnight on Friday and into Saturday and that hundreds of people had been arrested.
There were reports that police dropped tear gas canisters from helicopters onto protesters.
The crowd — mostly youngsters — waved Turkish flags and chanted “unite against fascism” and “government resign” as they marched on the square in Istanbul.
Some protesters threw rocks at the police, while several tourists – including an Egyptian who was seriously injured after being hit by a tear-gas canister – were caught in the clashes.
It was the fiercest anti-government demonstration since Mr Erdogan first came to power in 2002. The prime minister and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party stand accused of an increasingly uncompromising stance, an inching Islamisation of the country and showing little tolerance of criticism.
Last week, the government quickly passed legislation curbing the sale and advertising of alcoholic drinks, in a surprise move that alarmed secularists. Many felt insulted when he defended the legislation by calling people who drink “alcoholics”.
“The trees, it’s the drop that made the vase overflow,” said Ozkan, a philosophy student in Istanbul who did not want to give his full name. “People are sick and tired of everything that this government is doing to them.”
Mr Erdogan remained defiant on Saturday, vowing to push ahead with the redevelopment plan for Taksim Square and calling on protesters “to stop their demonstrations immediately”.
“Police were there yesterday, they’ll be on duty today and also tomorrow because Taksim Square cannot be an area where extremists are running wild,” he said.
Asli Aydintasbas, a commentator for the daily Milliyet newspaper, wrote: “These people are not just hugging trees … what they are objecting to more than anything is that the prime minister is the sole decision maker in every aspect of our lives.”
The US, Turkey’s main ally, said it was concerned by the number of injured, while Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association said: “The use of (tear) gas at such proportions is unacceptable. It is a danger to public health and as such is a crime… The people are standing up against Erdogan who is trying to monopolise power and is meddling in all aspects of life.”