Tolga Bozoglu / EPA
Protesters clash with riot police at Taksim square in Istanbul, Turkey, late June 15, 2013. Turkish riot police are firing water cannons and tear gas at protesters in Istanbul's Gezi Park, witnesses said, hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to remove them from the disputed public space by force.
Violence surged around Istanbul’s Taksim Square overnight Sunday as police vehicles cleared the area in preparation for a response rally set to be held Sunday by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AK Party.
"We have our Istanbul rally tomorrow. I say it clearly: Taksim Square must be evacuated, otherwise this country's security forces know how to evacuate it," Erdogan told supporters at a rally in Ankara on Saturday, according to Reuters.
The continued unrest comes after the prime minister told protesters at Thursday's talks he would put on hold plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks in Gezi Park until a court rules on the issue.
Within an hour of Erdogan’s warning Saturday to rioters that security forces “know how to clear” the area, water cannons were fired to evict protesters from the park. Armored police cars, fire trucks and sanitation vehicles were brought in to clear the remaining tents, debris, and barricades.
Lines of police backed by armored vehicles sealed off Taksim Square as officers stormed the adjoining Gezi Park.
Demonstrators were held back on the outskirts of the park, with water cannons firing sporadically to keep anyone from re-entering the area. Battles involving tear gas and water cannons were also taking place on side streets.
Turkish riot police used water cannons in an effort to drive protesters from Istanbul's Gezi Park, which is near the almost vacant Taksim park, site of a similar protest. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Reuters reported that protesters fleeing the tear gas ran into a hotel at the back of the park.
"We tried to flee and the police pursued us. It was like war," Claudia Roth, a German politician who was on the scene to show her support for the protesters, told Reuters.
Istanbul's governor said 29 people had been lightly injured in the clashes, according to Reuters.
"We will continue our work to constitute a peaceful environment in the next few hours," Istanbul Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu said, adding that the police operation was "extremely smooth."
What began as a campaign by environmentalists to save what they say is one of central Istanbul's few green spaces spiraled into the most serious show of defiance against Erdogan and his AK Party of his decade in power.
Erdogan plans to respond to protesters in Taksim Square on Sunday, where the AK Party will hold its own rally. To ensure that people from around the country can attend, the AKP is offering free transportation on buses and ferries to the response rally.
Before the evacuation of the park Saturday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul took to Twitter saying that “everyone should return home now,” and that “the channels for discussion and dialogue” are open.
But not everyone was ready to leave the square.
“We shall remain in the park until all of our democratic rights are recognized,” Tayfun Kahraman told The Associated Press.
There have been no plans for Erdogan to delay Sunday’s response rally.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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