A protester throws a flare at riot police during a May Day
demonstration in Istanbul. REUTERS/Cevahir Bugu
Turkish police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber
pellets to stop May Day protesters, some armed with fire bombs,
from defying Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and reaching
Istanbul's central Taksim square.
Citing security fears, authorities shut parts of the city's
public transport system, erected steel barricades and
deployed thousands of riot police to block access to Taksim,
a traditional union rallying point and the focus of weeks of
anti-government protests last summer.
Erdogan, who warned last week he would not let labour unions
march on Taksim, has cast both last year's street protests
and a corruption scandal dogging his government since
December as part of a plot to undermine him.
While it was the unions who called for demonstrations to
press workers' rights and express broad opposition to
Erdogan's government, some of those who clashed more
violently with police were from marginal leftist groups.
The Istanbul governor's office said it had received advanced
information that "illegal terror organisations and their
extensions" would resort to violence to stoke unrest.
On the fringes of a massive security cordon around the
square, pockets of protesters played cat and mouse with
police in tear gas-shrouded side streets.
Demonstrators in surrounding neighbourhoods repeatedly tried
to breach police lines blocking the way to Taksim, a normally
teeming shopping and tourism district which lay virtually
deserted and ringed by security checkpoints.
Bemused tourists, their hotels lining the square, picked
their way nervously through police lines, some shepherded by
bell boys, their luggage in tow.
The Istanbul governor's office said 90 people were injured,
19 of them police officers, and 142 detained in the unrest,
much of which took place early in the day with calm largely
returning by the evening. It said police had found eight
In the working class Okmeydani district, members of leftist
groups threw fire bombs and fireworks at security forces, who
responded with rubber pellets. Similar clashes erupted in
March at the funeral of teenager Berkin Elvan, who had lain
in a coma after being wounded in last year's unrest.
Elvan's image was displayed on a giant poster on Thursday as
some of the protesters chanted "Berkin's murderer" at police.
"This is a day of struggle. We're not trying to reach Taksim
to celebrate but to resist," said Caglar, 37, a teacher and
leftist activist, clutching a scarf to protect against the
Police also used water cannon and gas to disperse more than a
thousand demonstrators in the capital Ankara, where the
centre of the city was on lockdown, with a heavy security
presence and police helicopters buzzing overhead.
After Erdogan's warning against trying to march on Taksim,
the government suggested instead that the May Day gathering
should take place at a venue on the outskirts of the city.
The unions rejected that idea.
"We will be in Taksim despite the irrational and illegal ban.
All roads will lead to Taksim on May Day, and our struggle
for labour, equality, freedom, justice and peace will
continue," the main unions said in a statement ahead of the
day of protest.
On the main Istiklal shopping street leading to Taksim,
hundreds of police, some in plain clothes, others in riot
gear, sat outside shuttered shops. Tourists were searched by
police as they tried to enter the area, normally one of the
busiest in the city of 15 million people.
"This is supposed to be a friendly place for tourists. This
is a terrible way to treat visitors," said Mustafa, from
The authorities issued a similar ban last year, leading to
thousands of anti-government protesters fighting with police
as they tried to breach barricades around the huge square,
which in previous years was a focal point for labour
That violence was followed by mass protests that spread
across Turkey late last May, in one of the biggest challenges
to Erdogan's rule since his AK Party came to power in 2002.
"Give up your hope of Taksim," Erdogan said at a meeting of
his ruling AK Party lawmakers in parliament last week.
The prime minister has in the past dismissed protesters as
"riff-raff" and "terrorists" and pointed to his AK Party's
strong showing in elections.
The AK Party dominated the electoral map in municipal polls
on March 30, retaining control of both Istanbul and Ankara
despite the corruption scandal and last summer's unrest.