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Turkish riot police fire tear gas in effort to clear Istanbul protesters

 

Anti-government protests continue for the 11th day in Istanbul. NBC's Richard Engel talks to Andrea Mitchell about the ongoing violence in the country, as well as what spurred it.

ISTANBUL – Fierce clashes between protestors and Turkish riot police continued into Wednesday, turning this normally quiet and tourist friendly city on its head as thousands of demonstrators were forced out of  Istanbul's Taksim Square by tear gas and a water cannon.

Cleanup crews had moved into the square by early Wednesday as demonstrators continued to lash out against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan following a day full of the fiercest anti-government  demonstrations in the country’s recent history. The unrest spread to 78 cities across Turkey.

Thousands of protestors of all ages camped at the edge of the square in Gezi Park, using destroyed vehicles as a makeshift barrier.  Police continued to fire tear gas near the area throughout the night, and the ongoing violence prompted demonstrators to write their blood type on their forearms with markers.

According to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, four people were killed on Tuesday, including one police officer, and nearly 5,000 have been treated for injuries or exposure to tear gas.

The clashes Tuesday began with jeering protestors confronting police by banging drums and demanding the resignation of Erdogan, who they say has ruled with an increasingly authoritarian style . Protesters pelted water cannon vehicles with stones and ambulances were later seen moving in and out of the square.

Erdogan had earlier called on protesters to stay out of Taksim, the center of more than a week of demonstrations that have divided the country he has dominated for a decade. Erdogan, who denies accusations of authoritarian behavior, declared he would not yield.

"They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen here? Were we going to kneel down in front of these (people)?" Erdogan said as action to clear the square began.

"If you call this roughness, I'm sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won't change," he told a meeting of his AK party's parliamentary group.

The latest violence began Tuesday morning when police moved past barriers erected by the protesters and into the square to scatter a small number of people who have been camped there to protest against a planned redevelopment of the square.

Hundreds more protesters nearby - many wearing gas masks - joined to charge toward police, throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks. Police responded with round after round of tear gas canisters and frequent blasts from water cannons.

Tourists fled hotels near the square, covering their mouths with napkins, as clouds of noxious gas spread over a large area downwind of the center of the protests.

Kostas Tsironis / AP

A protester throws a gasoline bomb toward riot police during clashes in Taksim Square in Istanbul on Tuesday.

As the protests grew Tuesday morning, hundreds more riot police arrived, wearing gas masks and carrying plastic shields.

Police used megaphones to urge protesters to keep back and stop throwing missiles, but their pleas had little effect.

A police vehicle and a water cannon burned as Molotov cocktails, or gasoline bombs, found their targets.

During the afternoon, police briefly moved into Gezi Park, the tree-filled part of the square that is at the heart of the protests, and withdrew minutes later after being confronted by several hundred demonstrators, Reuters reported.

Clashes ebbed and flowed through the day, with the protesters eventually shooting fireworks and what appeared to be high-speed model rockets toward the police, who continued to use tear gas and water cannons to drive back the demonstrators.

Police and demonstrators face off Tuesday in Taksim Square as Turkish citizens continue to protest the leadership of the prime minister.

Government officials acknowledged that protesters had been injured, with Istanbul Gov. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu describing the injuries as minor. Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News, however, quoted the president of the Turkish Medical Association as saying hundreds of protesters had been injured and five of the cases were critical.

The protests began May 31 after police cracked down on what had been a peaceful demonstration against redevelopment of the park, which would remove a considerable chunk of rare green space in the sprawling city.

The clashes have grown since, with the square becoming symbolic of greater dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s government.

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Protests that started as an outcry against a local development project in Taksim Square have snowballed into widespread anger against what critics say is the government's increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.

The prime minister has recently imposed restrictions on the sale of alcohol, altered social security, separated children by sex in primary and secondary schools and emphasized religious holidays over national ones.

Erdogan was dismissive of the protesters in a Tuesday meeting with his Justice and Development (AKP) party, calling them traitors and vandals. He said hotels around Taksim were empty and the shops were suffering losses, "except those selling beer."

Initial clashes grew after Erdogan returned from a trip abroad and ordered an immediate end to the protests. His tone toward them has been dismissive, and he has called them them looters who are “arm in arm with terrorists.”

Protests have spread to other cities as Erdogan has remained defiant and police have cracked down.

In an indication of the impact of the protests on investor confidence, the central bank said it would intervene if needed to support the Turkish lira.

Reuters and NBC News’ Jim Maceda and Andrew Rafferty contributed to this report.

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