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Istanbul police fire tear gas to disperse May Day protesters

Riot police gather in Istanbul in October 2014
Riot police gather in Istanbul in October 2014 Sarah Leduc/FRANCE 24

Turkish police fired water cannons and tear gas on Friday to disperse hundreds of stone-throwing protesters marching on Taksim Square in central Istanbul in defiance of a ban on May Day rallies.


Riot police in the Besiktas neighbourhood near the square chased away protesters who threw bottles and set off fireworks as police helicopters circled overhead.

Istanbul police said that nearly 140 people had been detained, although activists said the number was nearly double that. By afternoon most of the protests had been broken up and the demonstrators had dispersed.

Istanbul went into security lockdown in anticipation of possible unrest earlier in the day, with thousands of Turkish police manning barricades and closing off streets to stop May Day celebrants.

Citing security concerns, authorities also shut down much of the city’s public transport system and dispatched riot police to block off Taksim Square, a traditional rallying point for leftists and the centre of weeks of protests in the summer of 2013.

Even before the police moved in on the Besiktas protesters, Istanbul's police chief Selami Altinok had said that 136 people had been arrested in various points in the city.

Usually a bustling square lined with cafes and hotels, Taksim Square on Friday was filled with police buses, ambulances and satellite broadcast trucks.

The government had said the square would only be open to those who came peacefully to show their “respect”.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Thursday he would visit to lay carnations and commemorate his fellow citizens.

Government eyes June polls

Critics say President Tayyip Erdogan and the government have become more authoritarian ahead of June elections.

“This meeting is peaceful and is not armed,” opposition politician Mahmut Tanal, who was holding a pocket-sized book of the Turkish constitution, told Reuters ahead of the clashes.

<<< Read more on Hurriyet Daily News: Turkey marks tense May Day >>>

“People want to express their problems but the government doesn’t want those problems to be heard ahead of elections.”

Opposition parties and unions have called on the government to lift the ban.

Erdogan has previously dismissed protesters as “riff-raff” and terrorists, outraged by the weeks of demonstrations in 2013 that brought unwanted international attention and posed the biggest challenge to his AK Party since it came to power in 2002.

Erdogan is aiming for a massive victory for the AKP in June parliamentary polls, which would allow it to change the constitution and give him the broad presidential powers he seeks.

The 2013 Taksim protests began as a peaceful demonstration against plans to redevelop Gezi Park, a leafy corner of the square. A police crackdown subsequently spiralled into weeks of nationwide protests against Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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