Reports that an "overwhelming force" of thousands of riot police mowed down an estimated 20,000 protesters who had assembled in a mass demonstration in Instanbul's Taksim Square are surfacing Tuesday evening.
Speaking with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, reporter Richard Engel said that "hundreds if not thousands of police stormed the square" as the skies above "filled with tear gas" and the officers cleared the swelling crowd with powerful water cannons.
And the Guardian reports:
Dozens of police have been sweeping across Taksim square this evening, backed by water cannon.
Reuters reports that riot police fired volleys of teargas canisters, driving thousands into narrow side streets.
"It's going to be hard for Edrogan to explain this away, to send in an overwhelming force to clear people away who were just chanting," said Engel.
Following threats made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that protesters will "pay a price" if they continue their mass demonstrations, Turkish police stormed Taksim Square Tuesday brandishing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, destroying the camp and dispersing the protesters who have occupied the square for over two weeks.
Hundreds of police officers backed by armored cars moved in on Taksim Square in the early morning in their first return to the site after pulling out on June 1, saying they wanted to remove makeshift barricades erected by protesters and clear the area of flags and banners.
The police action surprised protesters, hundreds of whom have been camping out in the adjoining Gezi Park, and came just hours after Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Erdogan would meet with protest leaders Wednesday, in his first major concession since the deadly unrest began nearly two weeks ago.
"We will fight. We want freedom. We are freedom fighters," said student Burak Arat, who told AFP he was sleeping in Gezi Park—a "liberated zone" until now—until he awoke to the bursts of tear gas canisters.
Turkish media reports that some protesters responded to the attack by throwing Molotov cocktails. However, witnesses including Guardian reporter Luke Harding, suspect that the incendiaries were actually being launched by plainclothes officers or provocateurs.
Video footage on the website of the daily Hurriyet shows a small group of four of five "demonstrators" lobbing cocktails at police. But their attempts are suspiciously theatrical and inept – with the "demonstrators" at one point advancing in a hopeless Roman-style assault.
Turkish state media have broadcast footage of these encounters live, in stark contrast to the early days of the protests, marked by police brutality, which it failed entirely to report.
Witnesses posted pictures online of the throwers carrying walkie-talkies and wearing similar gas masks to those the police wore. Another posted a picture of an older man, carrying a gun and bearing "no resemblance to the thousands of demonstrators who have peacefully occupied the square for the past 12 days."
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After the incident, a representative from Turkey's Socialist Democracy Party (SDP) issued a statement confirming that the individuals seen throwing the Molotov cocktails were not affiliated with the party, despite photographs of them carrying SDP flags.
Tuesday afternoon, following the attack, police re-entered Taksim Square "to clean up signs of occupation," Al Jazeera reports.
According to reports, police replaced the banners with a large Turkish flag and a banner with the picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular republic.
A statement from the office of Istanbul governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, said the demonstrators' banners were making the square look as though it was under "occupation" and was "negatively affecting our country's image in the eyes of the world opinion and leading to reaction from within the society," the Guardian reports.
Addressing party officials, Edrogan added that Gezi Park "not a place to be occupied…there is a big game being played using Gezi Park as an excuse."
Ahead of the removal, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Istanbul and the capital Ankara Monday evening, where police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Monday's action was smaller than the mass demonstrations held over the weekend.
The national unrest first broke May 31 after police violently disrupted a peaceful protest to save Istanbul's last green space, Gezi Park. Tensions have since spiraled into mass displays of anger against Edrogan and his "increasingly authoritarian" ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party.
The heavy handed police response has left two protesters dead and nearly 5,000 injured.