Istanbul (CNN) — A central square in Istanbul erupted Tuesday night in an unsettling, chaotic chorus, with tear gas canisters and water cannons from police met by fireworks, metal banging and defiant chanting from protesters.
The authorities’ tactics caused an ebb and flow of demonstrators from the Turkish city’s Taksim Square, with many of them moving onto the abutting Gezi Park.
Riot police surrounded a statue in the middle of the square starting around 10 p.m., even as fires burned around them, but there was little suggestion that the tension was over.
The protests were a continuation of demonstrations that first focused on the environment — opposition to a plan to build a mall at the park — but soon grew into a crusade against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s democratically elected government. They have been going on for days in Istanbul and other cities around the country that bridges Europe and Asia, with the dramatics Tuesday signifying there’s no clear end in sight.
“There’s a spirit of determination (and) solidarity” inside Gezi Park, CNN’s Arwa Damon said Tuesday night from the park.
Tuesday’s drama came a day before Erdogan had planned to meet with protest organizers, yet hours after he stood resolved insisting “we will never allow people to push things to us.”
After touting a long list of achievements at a gathering Tuesday of his own Justice and Development Party in parliament, Erdogan directly addressed those opposing him on the streets of Turkey’s biggest city.
“They say the prime minister is harsh. The prime minister is firm,” the prime minister said of their grievance against him. “I’m sorry. The prime minister is not going to change.”
‘We want to be heard, respected’
For days, Taksim Square has been a hub of activity by protesters decrying what they say is an increasingly authoritarian government.
Throughout Tuesday morning, smoke from tear gas and fireworks wafted through the air at the square as armored vehicles shoved away makeshift barriers set up by the demonstrators.
Several protesters linked arms to form a human chain and prevent the police advance. But when police deployed multiple canisters of tear gas, they scattered again.
“If you stop throwing rocks, we will not use tear gas,” the police told the raucous group over loudspeakers. “We don’t want you to get hurt; please obey.”
Protesters had built a new barrier earlier Tuesday and lobbed Molotov cocktails at armored vehicles, burning at least one of them. Police responded by spraying water cannons.
In a game of cat-and-mouse, the demonstrators, using wooden boards as shields, would pull back only to return, lobbing cocktails and firecrackers and flashing “victory” signs.
Things escalated Tuesday evening when riot police fired tear gas canisters toward the square, prompting tens of thousands to flee.
Many of them sought refuge in Gezi Park, where Erdogan’s government had said they’d allow protesters to remain as long as they were peaceful. But Tuesday evening, as police shot tear gas canisters into Taksim Square, CNN’s Damon saw some canisters also go into the park.
Protesters didn’t stay away from Taksim Square for long. At one point, thousands packed back into it. Some surrounded a large bonfire they were fueling with whatever they could pick up, as deafening bangs — likely the result of stun grenades — added to the turmoil.
The assault on the area marked a return to the more heavy-handed tactics Turkish authorities used in the earlier days of the protests.
“The police are against me,” one woman in Gezi Park told CNN, saying she’s seen classmates, work colleagues and others who, like her, had never protested until now. Pointing to a mask she had around her neck for tear gas, she added, “This is how a violent person behaves.
“We want to be heard, respected …” she said. “We’re not vandals, we’re not criminals.”
Saban Disli, a member of parliament who belongs to Erdogan’s party, acknowledged there are some “peaceful demonstrators” who, he claimed, “are being used by terrorist groups.” He denied that the prime minister is heavy-handed, accusing opposition parties and “the international media” of crafting a false image of Erdogan.
“This is not new Erdogan,” Disli told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday night, saying the prime minister hasn’t changed since he was mayor of Istanbul. “This has never been new Erdogan.”
Erdogan defiant in face of opposition
Demonstrators have demanded Erdogan’s resignation, but the prime minister has fought back in the face of the biggest challenge he and his party have faced during their decade in power.
In speeches, Erdogan has said he has no tolerance for what he calls illegal demonstrations.
On Sunday, he slammed protesters, warning that “even patience has an end.”
He criticized protesters’ tactics and challenged them to beat him at the ballot box.
“All they do is destroy. They attacked public buildings; they burned public buildings. They burned the cars of civilians,” he said.
“Let’s face off at the ballot box in seven months. If you are saying democracy and freedom, if you are saying rights and freedoms, you cannot achieve that with violence. Only within the laws, you can achieve it.”
Violence at past protests
Previous protests have met with a harsher police response, garnering broad criticism from inside and outside of Turkey.
Since the demonstrations started on May 31, two protesters have been killed. One was hit by a car in Istanbul; the other was shot in the head by unknown assailants in Antakya, near the border with Syria.
A police captain died after falling from a bridge last week, the Adana governor’s office said.
The Turkish Medical Association said that more than 4,300 people were injured in clashes last week. Only a few dozen suffered serious injuries.
CNN’s Greg Botelho, Josh Levs and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.
From Nick Paton Walsh and Gul Tuysuz, CNN