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Violent Protests in Turkey; Turkish Protesters Driven Out with Force

Aired June 11, 2013 - 16:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. We know that many in Turkey are probably watching us right now because they do not trust the media broadcasts within their own country.

It's just after 11:00 at night in Istanbul right now. We're looking at live pictures from Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey. The world is watching. We are all wondering if we're approaching the moment when Turkey's cultural capital tips into chaos.

Police have retaken Istanbul's Taksim Square in a stunning show of force, firing water cannons and a seemingly endless supply of tear gas into the crowd. Protesters had to flee as the fumes filled their lungs and stung their eyes. Many, however, are still there, as you can tell.

A short time ago, Istanbul's governor gave a press conference calling the protesters -- quote -- "marginal groups" and blaming them for attacking police. He asked the public to clear out of Taksim Square and said the government will keep taking necessary measures until all protesters are gone.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, has also been on the ground with her CNN crew for all of this. She's standing by live in Istanbul.

Arwa, what is happening at your location right now?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are actually in Gezi Park itself.

There are still masses of people here, although a lot of them forced to push back because of the volley of tear gas that came in sustained over quite a period of time. And you would see people running around spraying this white liquid they have into each other's eyes. I'm not exactly sure what's in it, but it smells like peppermint and it really helps that sting, that burn.

And then right behind me, you're seeing how people here are beginning to organize themselves. They have actually roped off that area, because in the back is one of those makeshift field clinics where they take some of those that are really suffering after the severe inhalation of tear gas.

What was interesting is that earlier we went back there and were trying to film, and the volunteers got pretty agitated, asking us to move away, not to film them, because they say that they were in fact concerned that the Turkish government might come after them if they knew their identities.

And if you remember, too, Jake, this park is where it all began. It was all about conserving the small little green space, the last green space many people will tell you exists in Istanbul. We're hearing volleys of tear gas presumably also still going on.

But it escalated from what it was here. It escalated into these widespread demonstrations against what those who oppose the government are saying, at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule, people demonstrating against the fact that they feel as if this conservative Islamist government is trying to impose its own morals on what up until now has been a secular society.

Turkey for decades, if not longer, has been priding itself on really separating politics and religion. And people (INAUDIBLE) are dug in for the long haul. They have been chanting. It's not going to end. But it's been a fairly intense night.

We were actually down in the square during that mass demonstration, when the violence there broke out and it began in what appeared to be an altercation between a small group of demonstrators and the riot police. And literally, within seconds, Jake, there was tear gas, there was water cannons and the situation really escalated to a point where it was completely out of control.

TAPPER: And, Arwa, Arwa, we have all seen the image of that woman in red from a few days back, the image of somebody who has not been doing out anything violent being hosed.

How serious have the injuries been to the protesters and also possibly to the riot police? Have you seen anything in terms of serious injuries?

DAMON: In terms of what we have actually seen, a lot of it has been due to severe inhalation of the tear gas.

But we have been hearing about (INAUDIBLE) earlier in the day, one of the demonstrators was telling us that they had several people seriously injured. It's also important, though, to differentiate between the demonstrators that are here in Gezi Park that will tell you that they are completely peaceful, and those we see throwing the rocks, throwing the Molotov cocktails at the riot police themselves.

What was interesting is that earlier in the day, we actually witnessed some of the Gezi Park demonstrators trying to calm down the situation, which is what they were calling the stone throwers and the riot police. They, too, do not want to see the situation get even more violent than it already is.

But they will tell you that of course this has gone beyond being about the park itself. This is about now demands by those who did not vote for Prime Minister Erdogan, who do not support the way that he's choosing to govern this nation, them wanting to see the government begin to reform itself, step back from some of these measures that it has put into place, but everyone incredibly infuriated as to the decisions that the government seems to have clearly made about how it is going to handle these demonstrations.

Remember, the prime minister said that these were terrorists, these were extremists that were doing this. And if we look around right now, these are ordinary people. These are middle-class Turks from all walks of life who are telling that they just want their voices to be heard.

They say that they are peaceful. What's going to make this incredibly difficult is that, because it has escalated to such an point, how then does it come to an end? We were hearing that there were supposed to be negotiations that were going to be taking place tomorrow. We spoke to some of those individuals are involved in the negotiations.

They said that they have received no official invitation just yet, and that given the circumstances that took place today, well, any sort of negotiation at this stage would really just be a farce. So it's very difficult to see how Turkey is going to extract itself from this ongoing crisis, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Arwa Damon, we will come back to you later in the short.

Our Nick Paton Walsh has also been on the ground. He's been reporting through a gas mask at times to bring us the very latest in this very volatile situation in the heart of Istanbul, Taksim Square. You're looking at live pictures on the right of your screen.

Nick, what are you seeing from your vantage point right now?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, just to explain, I have got a gas mask in my hand. Gas has occasionally wafted in from the square, where there's been substantial clouds for the last few hours.

And we are usually a different kind of lighting because of concerns about too much attention being drawn to our live position here. But as I was talking, another volley of tear gas being launched, potentially also some of the stun grenades that police have been using.

The scene below is deserted in many ways for the first time. There was a few hours when the police were fighting us, pushing protesters back, and then the protesters would surge back in toward the center of the square. As it stands now, that volley you heard is from one group of riot police that are pushing their way down the left-hand side of Gezi Park, where you just spoke to my colleague Arwa Damon.

There are protesters on there. There are barricades that have been set far -- I have just, I think, seen an excavator, part of the construction equipment in this area. That's on fire as well. The police now retreating to that main monument, and you do have to ask yourself, Jake. The key thing, the mayor of Istanbul saying to Reuters that this would continue until they regain control.

Well, at this point, they seem to be heading towards protesters, firing tear gas at them, and perhaps the hope is to wear them down, eventually, they will go home. We have seen no real sign of that being imminent.

And in previous police operations I'm sure you have witnessed in other capitals, too, when they try and move crowds away, they have -- normally, a professionally organized plan takes out troublemakers, and then slowly -- large explosion there, a stun grenade -- and then encourages those peaceful protesters to simply go home.

Well, this is just now -- I have been watching 15 hours more or less of standoff, briefly punctuated by a peaceful protest. That was then sent scattering by a massive volley of tear gas about three hours ago.

So, really, you have got to ask yourself the question here, Jake, how does this end? Where is the Erdogan administration's plan to restore calm Istanbul, and do they really want pictures like this in a tourist mecca for many part of the world? Do they want pictures like this playing out for another 15 hours, Jake?

TAPPER: If you're just tuning in, you're watching live pictures from Taksim Square in downtown Istanbul in Turkey, where protesters and police have been clashing for hours. Our own Nick Paton Walsh is in Taksim Square, as is Arwa Damon in a different part.

Coming up, we're going to continue to cover this, tear gas, water cannons. Why are police taking action now? We will go back live to Istanbul for the latest.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're following the eruption of violence surrounding protests in Istanbul.

You're looking at live pictures right now from Taksim Square. Riot politics pushed out protesters from Istanbul's Taksim Square with force not long ago.

Now let's go live to CNN International, Christiane Amanpour. She's in New York.

Christiane, let's talk about the man behind the anger fueling these protests, Prime Minister Erdogan. We know he was elected, just to bring people back up to speed who might not be following this diligently -- he was elected in 2002 as a reformer. He put a lot of energy behind reforms. He improved the Turkish economy. He was seen as more open and tolerant. He has improved the likelihood of membership for Turkey in the European Union.

What then happened to turn so many members of the public against him?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I think, really, in a nutshell, like so happens at the end of a long time in power, this is now his third term, people start to get a little tired and they started to think, well, you know, our leader is getting a little too big for his boots, a little arrogant, a little authoritarian, doesn't listen to us. And, certainly, there has been a severe shrinking of political space and, as you know, there has been a very disturbing, mass sort of arrest of journalists.

Look, this is one of the countries which has the highest number of journalists in jail. That does not speak well of an elected democracy.

Beyond that, however, he was obviously taken by surprise by these protests that started as a very peaceful protest at the end of May in Gezi Park, really an environmental protest. People didn't want to see a new development, a structure, being put up in what was one of the few green spaces in the center of Istanbul. I know the city really well. I was there not so long ago.

Taksim is a really vibrant, throbbing heart of the city. There a lot of pedestrian areas. There's obviously, you know, a lot of commercial activity there, too. But there is Gezi Park, which is a green area.

People didn't want to lose it. Importantly, I spoke tonight to the prime minister's chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, just before handing over to you, and he said the protesters will be allowed to stay in Gezi Park. They will be allowed. He insists the police do not have the right to go into Gezi Park. However, they do want to clean out Taksim Square, they say.

And I'll tell you what one of the leaders there told me, that this is not like Zuccotti Park in New York where Occupy Wall Street started. This is a major commercial thoroughfare, really part of the major working of Istanbul. So, that is what they're saying.

The question really is and the prime minister's adviser said that he will meet with the so-called peaceful protesters tomorrow. Will that resolve this issue? Will they be able to separate what they see as legitimate protesters from illegitimate protesters and will that make a difference -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Christiane, we've seen President Obama and the White House really not say much about Prime Minister Erdogan. They've pleaded for restraint, as is their want, but they haven't really talked about concerns they have of what the police are doing. As you know, the United States considers Turkey a very important ally when it comes to Syria, when it comes to Iraq, when it comes to Iran.

Talk a little bit about the difficult position President Obama finds himself in.

AMANPOUR: Well, it does clearly present a dilemma for President Obama and the other western European leaders. Look, Turkey is a very strong NATO ally. It's been a reliable ally of the West for decades now. And particularly, personally, Prime Minister Erdogan, I remember at the beginning of President Obama's administration, Turkey was one of the first stops he made when he -- after his inauguration. The sort of chatter was that Erdogan was one of his only sort of friends in the political arena. And just before this all started, the president hosted the prime minister at the White House and talked about their close alliance and particularly, obviously, the situation in Syria, they have relied a lot on turkey not in terms of helping the war there, the opposition, but in terms of helping with all these refugees who have come out and Turkey is a huge sort of recipient of all these refugees.

So, in a word you're right. They're in a dilemma because Turkey is also a democracy. And this prime minister has sidelined over the years in power, he has sidelined the very powerful Turkish military from what they used to have, which is a free reign in Turkish politics.

That is not the case anymore. In fact, some people are criticizing the fact that he's trumping up treason charges and putting a lot of these generals on trial. Nonetheless, he has removed the military from the political spheres. That is considered a good thing in terms of democracy.

He's also done a lot of reforms even ironically in the police arena. He's also done a lot of judicial reforms. He's also spurred Turkey's economy.

But with that has come the sense that, you know, he's been around a long time and he's not listening to his people anymore and he has unfettered ability to, let's say, build a new world's biggest airport, put up some kind of structure in Gezi Park, Taksim Square. You know, build a massive mosque overlooking the (INAUDIBLE), all these things that many leaders, by the way, do, a lot of infrastructure are being looked at sort of askance by some of Turkey's young business and secular elite right now -- Jake.

TAPPER: Thank you so much, Christiane Amanpour, as we listen to the sounds of explosion, tear gas, fire works, rubber bullets perhaps.

I want to bring in, our Becky Anderson, anchor of "CONNECT THE WORLD".

Becky, you're in London right now but you just last week were in Istanbul, where these live pictures are coming from right now, in Taksim Square, you were talking to these protesters. What are they protesting? What specifically are they upset about?

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR, "CONNECT THE WORLD": Let me give you two thoughts as I look at these pictures. I hope I'm not right in saying this but I may be, is that things were quiet during the day, a very festive mood by many, the tens of thousands of people in that square. But by night, things got a little eerie, and it would worry me that this is already happening at this time. It's only 20 past 11:00. Things could get a lot worse this evening if the protesters don't disperse.

You ask me about who they are. And the government is right to have pointed out there are two groups of protesters. And they say, one is a legitimate group of protesters who are demanding the government stop what they called this excessive commercialization of public spaces, Gezi Park, is a small green area, being one of those.

I saw the other group that the government referred to with my own eyes and many in the square would admit this, that there are many thousands of people who have hijacked what was a peaceful protest until about 11 days ago and there are a number of people in the square who you might call agitators. I'm saying this because I saw it with my own eyes. The government is calling that group of people vandals. They call them (INAUDIBLE), which is actually a word that the regular protesters have taken on. So, there is a distinct difference between those who were originally peacefully protesting the demolishing of a green area in the middle of Istanbul. That may sound a bit silly and naive but it's important given that Istanbul is growing. The concrete is over what used to be many green spaces.

So, it's important to many people that there isn't this creep by the government without any consultation. But it is fair to say that there is another group of protesters who may be agitating what's going on.

I think the second thing to point out tonight is it is really important that Erdogan speak himself to the protesters tomorrow. I spoke to people who said they feel humiliated, they feel insulted and claustrophobic in the country now. They want to be spoken to by the prime minister, not by his deputy or the president or others speaking on his behalf. He must speak to the people and that is scheduled for tomorrow.

So, if that doesn't happy, it would worry me what would happen next.

TAPPER: CNN international anchor, Becky Anderson, thank you very much.

We'll have more on this violent in Istanbul and what they mean for the U.S. and how will President Obama respond? That's coming up next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. We're bringing you live coverage of what's going on in Istanbul, Turkey, at Taksim Square. We've been watching all day -- tear gas, fires, Molotov cocktails filling the air in the heart of the city, in Taksim Square.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is in the area of Taksim Square.

Nick, tell us what we're seeing right now. We're seeing police seem to be firing rounds of tear gas into the crowds. What else are you seeing from your vantage point?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that group of police -- and forgive me, I'm talking through a gas mask. Tear gas is being blown regularly into our live position. What we've seen down there is a group of police who have moved toward some of these side alleys, and actually, the position of our bureau, is there have been a number of protesters edging towards them and their position using corrugated iron as shields, moving towards them potentially to throw something.

This is the first time the police have edged down this particular direction. And, of course, took a position on in our knees, and then fire a volley of tear gas, it seems down one of the side alleys adjacent to our bureau.

To the left of where I'm standing, an enormous amount of tear gas, slowly across an excavator part of the construction work that's been going on here clearly, that's on fire. And I believe, briefly, there were protesters rallying on the other side of the balcony adjacent to that particular excavator.

But this continued standoff is seeing some sort of lull but it actually may be a regrouping of sorts. We haven't seen the massive protesters that have normally been below this bureau returning since the last volley of tear gas. It seems to be, to the left, there are some small group of people, could be media, heading toward police lines now. You may see them walking into shot briefly.

But to the left side of Gezi Park is mainly where the protesters are rallying. I can see some from the vantage point here. This is where this continuing standoff and it's punctuated by those volley of tear gas. So, wherever you seem to think things are finding a lull, you get the substantial volley and then the crowd blows across Central Square here.

TAPPER: Nick, I'm going to interrupt you for one second.

WALSH: Mostly the protesters, they have taken --

TAPPER: Nick, I'm going to interrupt you for one second, I'm sorry, but Arwa Damon is in Gezi Park and her battery is running out. I want to go there before we lose her.

Arwa, what exactly is going on? We've heard a representative of the prime minister's office say that the police will not enter Gezi Park. But they are apparently still firing tear gas into the area, right?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's what happened earlier today. We heard a very similar pledge to that one from the government, saying that they would not actually enter the park. What took place when the large demonstration in Taksim Square all of a sudden turned violent is that riot police then persistently for a few hours fired tear gas into the park itself, although they did not physically enter. But they were right on the edges of the park, firing tear gas into it and it caused this massive stampede towards the back section of the park, which is where we are right now.

And it was incredibly intense. It was thick. The tear gas canisters were landing in the park itself, amongst the various tents that you see here.

So for those demonstrators that are in the park who very much define themselves as being peaceful demonstrators, who just want their voices to be heard, say that this is the government actually going against the promise that it made, even though the riot police may not have physically entered the park itself.

We are hearing there are supposed to be meetings taking place tomorrow between the government and representatives of the demonstrators. Earlier in the day, we spoke to some of them. They did not seem as if that was really going to happen.