ISTANBUL – Turkish riot police firing tear gas and water cannons took less than half an hour on Saturday to bring to an end an 18-day occupation of an Istanbul park at the center of the strongest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 10-year rule.
The sweep by white-helmeted riot police emptied the Gezi park of protesters, leaving a series of colorful, abandoned tents behind. Bulldozers moved in afterward, scooping up debris as crews of workmen in hard hats and fluorescent yellow vests tore down the tents. Protesters put up little physical resistance, even as plain-clothes police shoved many of them to drive them from the park.
White smoke billowed skyward as a phalanx of riot police marched inside the park on Saturday. They tore down protesters' banners, toppled a communal food stall, and sprayed tear gas over the tents and urging those inside to get out.
For over two weeks, protesters had defied Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's warnings to vacate the area.
Tayfun Kahraman, a member of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protest movements, said an untold number of people in the park had been injured -- some from rubber bullets.
"Let them keep the park, we don't care anymore. Let it all be theirs. This crackdown has to stop. The people are in a terrible state," he told The Associated Press by phone.
A brutal police intervention on May 31 against those protesting plans to redevelop the square and the park had sparked the biggest anti-government protests in Turkey in decades and dented Erdogan's international reputation.
The protests, which at one point spread to dozens of Turkish cities and towns, turned into a much broader expression of discontent about Erdogan's government, and what many say is his increasingly authoritarian decision-making.
Erdogan, who was elected with 50 percent of the vote for his third term in 2011, vehemently rejects the accusations by protesters and points to his strong support base.
As they entered the park on Saturday police shouted to the protesters: "This is an illegal act, this is our last warning to you -- Evacuate."
Shortly before the police launched their operation, Erdogan had threatened protesters in a boisterous speech in Sincan, a suburb of the capital Ankara, that is a stronghold of his Justice and Development Party.
"I say this very clearly: either Taksim Square is cleared, or if it isn't cleared then the security forces of this country will know how to clear it," Erdogan said.
A second pro-government rally is planned for Sunday in Istanbul, though Erdogan has previously said that the rallies were not designed as "an alternative" to the demonstrations at Gezi Park, but part of early campaigning for local elections next March.
On Saturday, Erdogan lashed out at what he called the "plot" behind the biggest street protests in his 10-year tenure.
"You are here, and you are spoiling the treacherous plot, the treacherous attack!" he said, insisting unspecified groups both inside and outside Turkey had conspired to mount the protests centered on Istanbul -- and that he had the documents to prove it.
The crowd chanted in response: "Stand straight, don't bow, the people are with you!"
In his speech, he focused on some protesters who have clashed with police -- at time by throwing stones and firebombs.
"There is no breaking and burning here, we are people of love," Erdogan said. "If people want to see the real Turkey, they should come here to Sincan,"
Erdogan already has offered to defer to a court ruling on the legality of the government's contested park redevelopment plan, and floated the possibility of a referendum on it. But concessions over the park seemed not to be enough.
Earlier this week, Erdogan ordered Taksim Square to be cleared of protesters. Police moved past improvised barricades on Tuesday, firing tear gas and rubber bullets and using water cannons to fend off small groups of demonstrators throwing stones, bottles and firebombs. Tear gas was also fired through the trees into the park, although the protesters were not removed.
Taksim Square itself returned to normal right after the end of the police operation early Wednesday. Traffic returned, the protest banners and flags were taken down, and cafes set up their chairs and tables outside again. At night, demonstrators still spill out from the park down the steps, while riot police kept watch from the edges.
Kahraman, the member of the Taksim Solidarity group who met with Erdogan in last-ditch talks that lasted until the pre-dawn hours Friday, said earlier that the protesters had agreed to continue their sit-in at Gezi Park, insisting that four key demands laid out by protesters in the talks had not been met.
The group has demanded that the park be left intact, anyone responsible for excessive police force resign or be fired, all activists detained in the protests be released, and the police use of tear gas and other non-lethal weapons be banned.
According to the government's redevelopment plan for Taksim Square that caused the sit-in, the park would be replaced with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. Under initial plans, the construction would have housed a shopping mall, though that has since been amended to the possibility of an opera house, a theater and a museum with cafes.
Earlier Saturday, President Abdullah Gul wrote on Twitter that "everyone should now return home," insisting that "the channels for discussion and dialogue" have opened -- an apparent reference to the talks between Erdogan and a small group of delegates from the protest.