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Uneasy calm in Turkey's Taksim Square after violent clashes clear protesters

After a crackdown on Tuesday during which police charged into crowds of demonstrators in Taksim Square with tear gas and water cannons, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan plans to meet with some of the demonstrators today. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Calm returned to Istanbul’s Taksim Square early Wednesday, hours after riot police used tear gas and water cannons to clear demonstrators after almost two weeks of clashes.

Only a handful of protesters remained in Gezi Park, the small tree-lined part of the square that has been turned into a makeshift camp for opponents of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Tuesday’s violent scenes – mirrored in other Turkish cities - prompted the White House to express concern and call for dialogue between Erdogan’s government and protesters.

Murad Sezer / Reuters

Demonstrators chat next to a damaged car at Gezi Park in central Istanbul on Wednesday.

"We continue to follow events in Turkey with concern, and our interest remains supporting freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Erdogan has repeatedly dismissed suggestions of a compromise, referring to them as looters who are “arm in arm with terrorists.” However, he was expected to meet some protest leaders Wednesday.

Turkey's president Abdullah Gul, who has taken a more conciliatory tone than Erdogan during the unrest, conceded that it was the duty of government to engage with its critics but appeared to close ranks with the prime minister, saying violent protests were a different matter. 

"If people have objections ... then to engage in a dialogue with these people, to hear out what they say is no doubt our duty," Gul told reporters, according to Reuters. "Those who employ violence are something different and we have to distinguish them ... We must not give violence a chance ... This would not be allowed in New York, this would not be allowed in Berlin."

At least two sides of Taksim Square were reopened to traffic Wednesday, and there were no signs of the violent clashes that have rocked the area for several days.

Some shops had also reopened, according to Derek Stoffel, a reporter with Canadian broadcaster CBC.

Until late Tuesday, thousands had defiantly occupied the square, using destroyed vehicles as a makeshift barrier.

But as dusk fell, police made a quick and decisive push to clear most of them out of the area, taking advantage of rain and strong winds.

Clouds of choking tear gas sent protesters scattering into side streets, according to Reuters, which also reported that staff in surrounding hotels raised shutters just enough to allow people to crawl inside for shelter.

Clashes between police and demonstrators went back and forth as winds blew tear gas away, but the onslaught scattered protesters enough to allow municipal workers to move in and remove debris and obstacles from much of the square.

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.

Human Rights Watch said one nearby medical facility had treated more than 100 patients, mostly for injuries related to the effects of tear gas.

Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP - Getty Images

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.

Police also fired water cannon to disperse protesters in the center of the capital, Ankara, Reuters reported.

The protests began May 31 after police cracked down on what had been a peaceful demonstration against plans to modernize Taksim Square.

The plans include an Ottoman-style military barracks, and a cultural center, including an opera house. If the plans are implemented, the park’s modest forest of trees would be reduced to garden-size.

The crackdown led to days of rioting and turned a local issue into a nation-wide protest, killing three and injuring at least 4,000 in some 78 cities. 

NBC's Richard Engel and Jim Maceda and Reuters contributed to this report.

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