ISTANBUL (AP) — Bulldozers cleared all that was left of a two-week sit-in in an Istanbul park and police sealed off the area early Sunday, keeping angry demonstrators from returning to a spot that has become the focus of the strongest challenge to the prime minister in his 10 years in office.
Protesters set up barricades and plumes of tear gas rose in Istanbul's streets into the early hours after Turkish riot police rousted a group who had vowed to stay in Gezi Park despite Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's warnings to leave.
As dusk fell Saturday, hundreds of white-helmeted riot police swept through the park and adjacent Taksim Square, firing canisters of the acrid, stinging gas. Thousands of peaceful protesters, choking on the fumes and stumbling among the tents, put up little physical resistance.
The protests began as an environmental sit-in to prevent a development project at Gezi Park, but have quickly spread to dozens of cities and spiraled into a broader expression of discontent about what many say is Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian decision-making. He vehemently denies the charge, pointing to the strong support base that helped him win third consecutive term with 50 percent of the vote in 2011.
As police cleared the square, many ran into nearby hotels for shelter. A stand-off developed at a luxury hotel on the edge of the park, where police opened up with water cannons against protesters and journalists outside before throwing tear gas at the entrance, filling the lobby with white smoke. At other hotels, plain-clothes policemen turned up outside, demanding the protesters come out.
Some protesters ran off into nearby streets, setting up makeshift barricades and running from water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
As news of the raid broke, thousands of people from other parts of Istanbul gathered and were attempting to reach Taksim. Television showed footage of riot police firing tear gas on a highway and bridge across the Bosphorus to prevent protesters from heading to the area.
As the tear gas settled, bulldozers moved into the park, scooping up debris and loading it into trucks. Crews of workmen in fluorescent yellow vests and plain-clothes police went through the abandoned belongings, opening bags and searching their contents before tearing down the tents, food centers and library the protesters had set up in what had become a bustling tent city.
Demonstrations also erupted in other cities. In Ankara, at least 3,000 people swarmed into John F. Kennedy street, where opposition party legislators sat down at the front of the crowd facing the riot police — not far from Parliament. In Izmir, thousands converged at a seafront square.
Near Gezi, ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals as police set up cordons and roadblocks around the park, preventing anyone from getting close.
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.
Taksim Solidarity, on its Web site, called the incursion "atrocious" and counted hundreds of injured — which it called a provisional estimate — as well as an undetermined number of arrests. Istanbul governor's office said at least 44 people were taken to hospitals for treatment. None of them were in serious condition, it said in a statement.
Huseyin Celik, the spokesman for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, told NTV that the sit-in had to end.
"They had made their voice heard ... Our government could not have allowed such an occupation to go on until the end," he said.
It was a violent police raid on May 31 against a small sit-in in Gezi Park that sparked the initial outrage and spiraled into a much broader protest. While those in the park have now fled, it was unclear whether they would take their movement to other places, or try to return to the park at a later time.
The protests, which left at least four people dead and more than 5,000 injured, have dented Erdogan's international reputation and infuriated him with a previously unseen defiance to his rule.
Saturday's raid came less than two hours after Erdogan threatened protesters in a boisterous speech in Sincan, an Ankara suburb that is a stronghold of his 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," he told tens of thousands of supporters at a political rally.
A second pro-government rally is planned in Istanbul on Sunday.
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.
On Friday, Erdogan 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.
Fraser reported from Ankara. Jamey Keaten in Ankara contributed to this report.