Erdogan leads huge, pro-government rally amid protests

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told hundreds of thousands of supporters it was his “duty” to evict activists from an Istanbul park as riot police fired teargas several kilometers away in the city center to disperse anti-government demonstrators.

Speaking at a massive campaign-style rally Sunday, Erdogan said two weeks of street protests had been manipulated by “terrorists.” He dismissed suggestions he was behaving like a dictator, as many protesters have alleged.

The prime minister also railed against foreign media coverage of the unrest amid criticism over his government’s handling of the protests that has seen his international image severely damaged.

As he spoke, Turkish riot police fired tear gas in central Istanbul to prevent thousands of anti-government demonstrators from regrouping after a night of violence.The umbrella protest group behind the Gezi Park campaign had called for demonstrators to gather peacefully in the adjacent Taksim Square but Istanbul’s governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu. stated they would not be allowed to do so.

Earlier, bulldozers removed protesters’ barricades around the square after crowds of people fled to nearby hotels and side streets when police forcibly evicted demonstrators from Gezi Park, the center of two weeks of anti-government unrest.

Municipal workers cleared away the last remnants of the two-week sit-in, and police sealed the area that has become the focus of the strongest challenge to Erdogan in his 10 years in office.

In the capital, Ankara, police forcibly dispersed hundreds who tried to hold a memorial service for an activist who died in a nearby police crackdown earlier this month.

The protests began over the prime minister’s plan to turn the Istanbul park into a mall. They have evolved into anti-government demonstrations that have spread across the country.

The government says the demonstrators are being manipulated by illegal groups seeking to sow instability.

Late Saturday, riot police stormed Taksim and Gezi Park, firing tear gas and water cannon after Erdogan warned that security forces would clear the area. Thousands in Ankara and Izmir also protested against Erdogan’s ruling AK Party.

Earlier, the prime minister told protesters he would put redevelopment plans for the park on hold until a court rules on them, and hold a referendum if the court rules in the government’s favor.