ISTANBUL -- Riot police fired water cannons and tear gas as they drove protesters out of Istanbul's Taksim Square and neighboring Gezi Park Saturday. The intervention came shortly after the prime minister warned that security forces "know how to clear" the area, which has become a symbol of the biggest anti-government protests in decades.
Within half an hour, the sweep by white-helmeted riot police had emptied the park, leaving behind a series of colorful, abandoned tents. Bulldozers moved in afterward, scooping up debris as crews of workmen in hard hats and fluorescent yellow vests tore down the tents. Protesters put up little physical resistance, even as plainclothes police shoved many of them to drive them from the park.
White smoke billowed skyward as a phalanx of riot police marched inside the park Saturday. They tore down protesters' banners, toppled a communal food stall and sprayed tear gas over the occupied tents.
Images on Turkish TV showed activists carrying one woman on a stretcher through a rank of police and into an ambulance, and a man splayed out, motionless, on the ground before a few others picked him up barehanded and hauled him away. For more than two weeks, protesters had defied Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's warnings to vacate the area.
A brutal police intervention on May 31 against those protesting plans to redevelop the square and the park had sparked the biggest anti-government protests in Turkey in decades and dented Erdogan's international reputation.
The protests, which at one point spread to dozens of Turkish cities and towns, turned into a much broader expression of discontent about Erdogan's government, and what many say is his increasingly authoritarian decision-making.
Erdogan, who was elected with 50 percent of the vote for his third term in 2011, vehemently rejects the accusations by protesters and points to his strong support base.