Police in Istanbul have used tear gas and water cannon to block demonstrators from entering the city’s central Taksim Square, the scene of major anti-government protests last year.
Trade unionists and other protesters – a mix of opposition party activists and some far-left groups – gathered at several locations in central Istanbul from the early hours of Thursday morning, intent on marching to Taksim to celebrate May 1 – International Workers’ Day.
Unions have said that a ban on gathering at the iconic site contravenes both the Turkish constitution and European human rights legislation on freedom of assembly.
Today’s attempted rally has prompted the government to deploy almost 40,000 police in Istanbul; many have been flown into the city from across the country.
Although the day started peacefully in Istanbul, police responded with tear gas and water cannon as tension spilled over into violence with some protesters hurling stones, fireworks and ball bearings in the Besiktas, Sisli and Okmeydani areas of the city. Petrol bombs were also thrown at police vehicles.
A main opposition Republican People's Party MP was tear-gassed in Besiktas when leading a sit-in protest on the street.
Stones, fireworks and ball bearings were also thrown at police earlier in Okmeydani where protestors chanted the name of Berkin Elvan, the Istanbul teenager fatally injured by a police tear-gas canister fired during anti-government protests last year.
Midday reports indicated that most large groups of protesters had been dispersed into side-streets around the Taksim and Beskitas areas and that police had cleared makeshift barricades thrown up by some demonstrators. However, protesters in the Tarlabasi district told one AA reporter that further violence was expected after nightfall.
Other areas of the city center remained calm although traffic and public transport were disrupted by the protests and security operation.
Some local residents in the Sisli district were evacuated from their homes due to heavy use of tear gas. One elderly female resident was taken to hospital suffering from the effects of tear-gas inhalation.
Some Twitter accounts of the protests have claimed that residents of Besiktas district were distributing gas masks and lemons to demonstrators counteract the effects of gas.
Taksim Square was a focal point for protests which erupted last year, which saw thousands of anti-government demonstrators clash with police.
The Istanbul governorate had allocated two ‘approved’ sites in the city for this year's May 1 rallies, both several miles from Taksim. However, despite providing free buses to the Yenikapi venue on the city’s European side the site remains mostly empty.
Across the Bosporus, in Kadikoy – another ‘approved’ site - hundreds of trade unionists were catching buses in an attempt to reach Taksim.
A member of the TURK-IS union, 30-year-old Salih, told AA that the organization had chosen Kadikoy over Taksim because “they prefer peace, not violence”.
Union leader Ergun Atalay told a crowd of supporters that: “Today in Kadikoy we celebrate May Day. Our wish is to end the day peacefully without one drop of blood being shed.”
However, one man who tried to unfurl a banner of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was taken into custody by police.
Two hundred members of two separate unions had been allowed to enter Taksim Square this morning to lay a wreath commemorating the deaths of 36 people during a May 1 demonstration in 1977.
The site has symbolic status for trade unionists and labor activists in Turkey. On May 1, 1977, as some 500,000 people gathered the square to celebrate Labor Day unidentified gunmen fired on the peaceful crowd. Thirty-six people died in the rioting and fighting which followed. Taksim Square remained closed to Labor Day demonstrations between 1977 and 2010.
The Istanbul governor's office said on Wednesday that the square would be closed to May Day demonstrations due to intelligence reports which claimed that “illegal terrorist organizations” would provoke violence against security forces.
Demonstrations and May Day events are also expected in more than 30 Turkish provinces today.
Ankara rallies took place at Tandogan Square and Sihhiye Square near the capital’s old town. Around 8,000 police were on duty and some minor clashes were reported between suspected ultra left protesters and the police in back streets near the traditional rallying point of Kizilay in the city centre.
Turkish activists gather in capital for May Day
Laborers and political activists gathered in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, for International Labor Day, May 1.
Around 8,000 police were deployed as protesters gathered for a joint rally by different trade unions in the city’s central Sihhiye district. Chanting ‘’work, bread, freedom!’’ the protest passed peacefully.
However, in another part of the city the situation turned more violent as police tried to disperse protesters trying to enter the commercial center, Kizilay.
Riot police ordered a group of around 600 protesters to disperse, but instead they responded by throwing rocks, bottles and fireworks at the police who in turn fired tear gas at the protestors.
The police also blocked access for the day between the Sihhiye district and Guven Park as it was the setting for violent clashes during the Gezi Park protests last year.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Interior Minister Efkan Ala said he hoped the day would strengthen social solidarity.
On May 1, 1977, as some 500,000 people gathered in Taksim square, Istanbul to celebrate Labor Day, unidentified gunmen fired on the peaceful crowd. Thirty-six people died in the rioting and fighting, which followed. Taksim Square remained closed to Labor Day demonstrations between 1977 and 2010.