Anti-government protests that erupted in Istanbul on Saturday have spread elsewhere across Turkey with the police announcing 939 arrests, the interior minister said.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler Guler said about 79 people were injured as police fired tear gas at protesters gathering in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations that have earned Turkey a rare rebuke from its ally Washington.
The unrest however has spread to other cities across the country, with police blocking a group of demonstrators from marching to parliament and the prime minister's office in Ankara.
The protests that have engulfed Istanbul were triggered by plans to redevelop iconic Taksim Square in the heart of the city, a project that will involve razing some 600 trees in an adjoining park.
The plan includes building a replica of military barracks from the Ottoman Empire to house a cultural center, but residents fear the area will in fact become a shopping district.
The Istanbul municipality, controlled by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) that has ruled Turkey since 2002, embarked on the ambitious project in November.
The plan aims to create a pedestrian zone around Taksim square, a traditional venue for rallies and protests as well as a popular tourist spot.
Work is under way to divert traffic leading to the busy central square from several directions into a tunnel, which officials say will beautify the tourist zone and keep the exhaust and noise of the city's traffic congestion underground.
With 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul is plagued with chronic traffic gridlock on the European side of the city.
But critics say the giant scheme, touted as also giving historic Taksim a facelift, will turn the square into yet another soulless, concrete commercial zone.
The project has drawn criticism from architects, urban planners and ecologists, who see it as another example of anarchic urbanization conceived for real estate developers with no consideration for the environment.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan vowed to press ahead with the controversial plan despite the unrest, considered to be one of the biggest challenges Turkey’s Islamist-rooted leadership has faced in its decade in power.
But the popular leader acknowledged that police used excessive force in responding to protests.
“There have been errors in actions of security forces especially with regard to use of pepper gas,” Okay, I accept. I have ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate this. It was excessive,” Today’s Zaman newspaper quoted Ergodan while speaking at the general assembly of the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TİM) on Saturday.
“I am requesting that the protestors immediately end these demonstrations,” he said.
The prime minister said the current work in Taksim has nothing to do with the project to build a replica of the Topcu Barracks or a mall, while vowing to rebuild the barracks.
“We will rebuild the Topçu Barracks. But the current work is not related to this.” he added. “It is unfair to label this government anti-green and anti-environmentalist.”
According to the newspaper, the protest grew out of anger at police’s violent tactics to break up a peaceful sit-in to protect the park in Taksim Square on Friday.
Both Britain and the United States have voiced concern over reports of violence between the protesters and police.
“We urge authorities in Turkey to exercise restraint and not to use tear gas indiscriminately,” the British foreign office tweeted on Saturday.