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More Live Coverage ot Taksim Square in Istanbul; Police Have Taken Over Portions of the Square

Aired June 11, 2013 - 14:00   ET


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But those fireworks going off, that's a sign of the times certainly. And from what I've seen, some water cannons firing water out and perhaps trying to suppress differently. But we're seeing again people emerging from the side streets. Hundreds, if not a couple of thousand now reconverging back towards central Taksim Square, Hala.

HALA GORANI, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Nick Paton Walsh and Arwa Damon in Istanbul. I'm Hala Gorani. Thanks for joining us.

If you are just joining us, to our viewers in the United States and elsewhere in the world, we are continuing to cover dramatic events unfolding in Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey. A country going through a crisis as anti-government protesters continue to demand that their government be accountable. These protesters saying that their prime minister, in particular, is acting in a way that is authoritarian. We are seeing live pictures there of tear gas canisters being fired. Water cannon being used. Arwa Damon, as you can see there in the lower right-hand box there on your screen, wearing a gas mask because of the large amount of tear gas that has been fired into the crowds.

What's going on where you are right now, Arwa?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Hala, you saw the shot of the fireworks from (INAUDIBLE) Taksim Square. We could see them right behind me as well and now the air is quite thick with tear gas being fired.

We are actually standing in Gezi Park itself (ph). The demonstrators who live here are by and large peaceful, but right now the situation has escalated so quickly and so dramatically. A couple of the tear gas canisters landed inside the park. They were picked up, thrown back out. You can even see people are clearing (INAUDIBLE) for people that don't have gas masks, trying to clear pathways to get away from the sheer intensity of what is being fired in each direction.

We can hear people talking around us. Some others trying to take shelter, like one young man behind a tree. One man running around with this bottle of liquid solution that you use (INAUDIBLE).

We're being joined by someone right now.

Hi. Have you been here since the very beginning?


DAMON: Did you think that the government would actually attack the park, tear gas the park, the way it did?


DAMON: And when did it (ph) start?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today - today, in the morning, they arrive here with 3,000 cops and then they (INAUDIBLE) go to the (INAUDIBLE) and then they attacked us. We were - we were standing here and they have -- they attacked us. They (INAUDIBLE) they go straight into the (INAUDIBLE). They attacked us.

DAMON: So they attacked you today for the first time here at the park?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no, no, no. Today is it. (INAUDIBLE).

DAMON: In the park? In the park?


DAMON: They had promised that they would not attack the park.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they will not attack the park and then they came to this area and they just - well they tear gas (INAUDIBLE) --

DAMON: What do you want to see the government do? How does this all end?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stop attacks. Stop the (INAUDIBLE). Stop (INAUDIBLE) because (INAUDIBLE) we are fighting for peace and for (INAUDIBLE) it was started just like that (INAUDIBLE) they started to (INAUDIBLE) - started to attack us with the cops, (INAUDIBLE) cops and (INAUDIBLE) and we paid - we (INAUDIBLE). They always attack (INAUDIBLE). They --

DAMON: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Hala, you can see people are struggling to talk because of the intensity of the gas here. But in short, that is the sentiment that we've been hearing quite a bit. This began as a small demonstration to try to save this park and it's escalated into so much more.

(INAUDIBLE) who are living here are telling us that the government could end all of this if it reverses its decision to build a shopping mall (ph) here. But it's not very difficult to see how any further negotiation is going to take place. Those negotiations that were supposed to be taking place tomorrow. Very difficult to see how they're actually going to happen in this environment. We were talking to one of the individuals whose actually been trying to negotiate with the government. He says that as long as these tactics are being used, those negotiations will just be a farce. GORANI: All right, Arwa, we'll get back to you in a moment. We're having a few audio issues there with Arwa, whose ground level in that park right next to Taksim Square. This all started as a protest against plans to turn a park into a shopping center and it has turned into this -- live, dramatic scenes unfolding before our eyes, coming to us from Istanbul, a major city in Turkey. One of the most important countries in that part of the world. Tear gas fired, water cannons used, protesters going in and out of the park.

Nick Paton Walsh is in our Istanbul bureau.

I'm seeing flairs there, Nick. I'm not sure what it is. What are these sort of red flares? Is that being fired by riot police or is that something demonstrators are using?

WALSH: I think you're referring to what seems to be a couple of fires in the central square there. We're not sure of the origin of them, but they're being extinguished by - or trying to be extinguished by water cannon.

Just a few moments ago, Hala, there was quite a dramatic atmosphere here. Protesters found every piece of corrugated iron they could and kicked (ph) it, stamping on it.

I'll just let you see the fireworks going off behind me now. It's unclear if they're celebratory or the scene earlier on today being fired at the police as part of the protests, makeshift arsenal of weapons.

But what we had heard earlier was the whole square united and banging on whatever corrugated iron it could find. This huge drum ringing out which eventually subsided. But people moving in force back towards the center of the square. The occasional crack of tear gas now lit up sometimes by the flashing lights and ambulances moving around the square as well.

I should point out, we don't know how many people have been injured during this. And the protests I've been seeing in the past 10 days, people have succumb, asthmatics or epileptics, have succumb to the severe effects of the tear gas upon them. So there will be concerns about the health of these protests. Many of them entirely calm.

One I believe of these fires is, in fact, one of the mobile phone company trucks that seemed to be sent into the square to boost the cell phone signal. A controversial decision, of course, to allow these protestors better cell phone coverage to use social media, to post pictures or statements about what's happening in this particular area. But let's listen to this crowd.

Growing in number. Growing in anger.

Now it's important to point out, despite some of the attempts at coherent statements aimed (ph) by the opposition here and the protests, they've yet to really find a singular leader to rally around. So much of this is unfocused, popular anger. Some of it's simply at a decade old administration, democratically elected nonetheless, and a lot of it fueled by police tactics.

That's the key thing for the hours ahead. We've seen in the past numbers growing inside all the cities of Turkey when the police respond violently. Are we going to see that again tonight? So bear in mind now, of the couple of thousand people gathering in increased darkness in the central square here, we don't know if the police will respond as they have the last two times when we've seen such gatherings with excessive use of tear gas, it's fair to say, but it's a more dangerous time here. It's dark.

A lot of the barricades are being cleared. People will be unfamiliar with the building site they're now standing around. There are two to three places where the concrete simply drops off by about 20 to 30 feet. So, people should be concerned with their well-being in this area. It's not a safe place to be at the best of times, particularly not in the pitch black of night.

But these fires continuing to burn. Ambulances in the background and the riot police, I think, apart from the occasional armored truck we're seeing, moving back into perhaps the back corner of this square.


GORANI: All right. And the prime minister has said - said today even, those who want to continue with the incidents, I say it's over. We won't show anymore tolerance. Is he making good on that promise, Nick?

WALSH: He has always threatened that his patience is wearing thin. We saw that this morning. The question really is what's the plan? They could do this all night. It could continue. You have seen other protests, I'm sure yourself, Hala. The police have a plan. They capture territory. They arrest people. They hold it.

This is a strange one (ph), routine, where protesters are pushed back by these non-lethal weapons like tear gas, water cannons and then surge back again when police withdraw. So we're seeing people run away now again, scattering. It's not quite clear why we haven't heard the familiar crack of tear gas again. But they're moving. There we are. That is, I think, a stun grenade. We've heard these loud blasts across the square all day. I'm seeing one armored water cannon truck moving in. Another, I believe, as well. That could be the reason for the retreat here by many in this crowd (ph).

So much of the danger for people in these situations, of course, that fear of mass panic where people run in an unknown direction for unknown reasons. Here's the banging again. That thumping noise that you're hearing, protesters finding whatever piece of corrugated iron they can, kicking it, punching it, trying to be unified by the sheer volume of noise they can make where they seem also to lack a direct, unified political message. But it's ringing out across the square now where police seem to be moving in occasionally, firing water cannons at them.

Fireworks again. Firing. Now those fireworks clearly being fired at the police armored vehicles there. I think it's fair to say not by accident. That's causing them to retreat. And now that thumping subsiding in the square. And, again, that question, where does this go next? What is the police strategy for restoring order here? That is obviously what most people in Istanbul hope scenes like this resolve themselves in, a calm, the ability to go back to normal life. Well, the protesters, the continue (ph) people (ph) protest.

Here's the banging again. That thumping noise.

GORANI: Nick, stand by for a moment. I just want to remind our viewers in the United States and around the world here what they're seeing. These are live, dramatic pictures of really extraordinary scenes in Taksim Square. For any of you who've been to Istanbul and to Taksim Square, you'll realize just how absolutely extraordinary, unusual, perhaps even in some ways historic these scenes are. You're seeing protesters and riot police clash in a head-on confrontation in some cases. And it's extraordinary because you have police launching these tear gas canisters and water cannon, et cetera, and then you have protesters moving in and out of the square.

And just a few seconds ago, actually setting off fireworks, which makes this scene even more surreal. Fireworks over Taksim Square just as these clashes continue.

I'm going to go to our Arwa Damon. I believe she's ground level in Gezi Park. Very close to Taksim Square. (INAUDIBLE), because it was a smaller protest against these plans to modify the park that started it all and eventually turned into this. Arwa's wearing a gas mask for obvious reasons.

Arwa, what are you seeing where you are right now?

DAMON: Basically this park is right off of (INAUDIBLE) Taksim Square. And this is kind of the mini front line that exist in this area between these demonstrators and the riot police.

We're positioned behind that burnt out and then spray painted bunch right there. There is such an intense bombardment of tear gas that they've been pushed temporarily back from this position. And you can see some of them moving back up, continuing to launch rocks at the riot police. You can see the tear gas billowing right in front of those various positions.

People who were here in the park (INAUDIBLE) trying to stay out of the violence that is taking place in Taksim Square. (INAUDIBLE) this really is right behind me. But right now they are saying that the government has broken its pledge when it said that it would not actually fire into this park itself.

But we're seeing (INAUDIBLE) ever since it was a peaceful demonstration inside Taksim Square become violent. Tear gas being fired into Gezi Park itself. We've been seeing people running around, trying to help one another. People carrying stretchers, trying to evacuate the wounded. You can, of course, continue to hear the tear gas and see it right on the very outskirts of this town (INAUDIBLE) right there, right now.

People beginning to pull back from the very front part of the park itself. And, of course, the tents are still all over the place as well. And then, in the side streets, people also continuing to reposition themselves behind that (INAUDIBLE), calling to one another, trying to organize themselves. You're hearing chants from the other side of the park right now.

But all of this happening in a fairly small but very critical part of the capital Istanbul, Hala.

GORANI: All right, Arwa Damon, thanks very much.

Nick Paton Walsh, I heard some small explosions there. What was that?

WALSH: We believe those were stun grenades. We didn't see the usual (ph) accompanying decorative explosion you get with fireworks to go with that. But just now, again, tear gas, pushing people back down the side streets.

We now have some substantial blazes. One barricade on fire down on one of the side road leading off from the square. Two fires in the central square itself.

Let me just let you hear the noise.

Protesters continuing to vent their anger by pounding whatever piece of corrugated metal they can find down there in the square below me. But there's a sense of disarray. I mean almost a sense of routine, in fact, if you see how some of these protesters are milling around. They've been pushed back by police with tear gas and surge forward repeatedly for the past hour now.

As you were saying earlier, Hala, what is the strategy from the police? Are they simply trying to remind protestors of their ability to push them back if they so want, or is there a large aim to hold this vital, central part of Istanbul? We are hearing the crack again of what sounds like tear gas near where we are. But, of course, as the protesters have been using fireworks, often loud blasts there.

Just a separate point really about what these scenes do to the image of Turkey. It's been an economic powerhouse for over a decade now, thriving in many ways on its increasing democratic reputation. But the protesters here consider their prime minister, the man who surely must have ordered this substantial police move, to be increasingly authoritarian, to not care about their minority opinion.

He has a democratic mandate of 50 percent, but many of the people down here, those who aren't (ph) simply (ph) fueled by police tactics, to come out on the street. Many we've spoken to feel disenfranchised. The increasingly conservative viewpoints in society being promoted by Prime Minister Erdogan doesn't match with their secular lifestyles.

And again, they are surging back towards the center of the square. It is remarkable to see the resilience of them in the face of water cannons, the danger the fireworks themselves pose, these loud flash bangs stun grenades that reverberate around the central square. It is remarkable to see them pushing back in yet again. And we could be in potentially for a long night. You have to ask yourself, what is happening elsewhere in Istanbul? What is happening in the other cities around Turkey at this point? These kind of scenes being the catalyst for protest across Turkey for the last 12 days. I've seen an (INAUDIBLE) of how riot police were fairly heavy handed in removing pretty small numbers of protesters in the last seven days.

But now these fires continue to burn. The riot police, armored cars, the water cannons, I think some of them are still in evidence on the square there. But we haven't seen those large columns of riot police, which have been all over this particular area for the past hour or two hours or so until they suddenly withdrew to one particular corner.

But the question is, of course, how many injured protesters are we talking about? Who's been affected by the tear gas? If anybody has been injured as they tried to flee this particular area. We've seen ambulances around the square, but we don't know quite what the impact on protesters has been.

Here's some more tear gas.

GORANI: And what is on fire there in the center of the square exactly? It looks like a vehicle.

WALSH: (INAUDIBLE) just let you listen to some of the - people fleeing now, en masse. It is panic. The armored water cannons moving forward. Tear gas fired ahead of them. This is a very dangerous situation because there are people in the dark, surrounded by smoke, running for their own safety.

I'll just let you hear this noise.

So many of the chats we've heard calling for the resignation of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. Now, distinctive banging on corrugated iron. Unity in the noise they make. Still, even though the armored water cannons move forward, police unable to finally disperse this crowd. They keep surging back.

And this, of course, precisely what a country that thrives so much on tourism, that once (INAUDIBLE) stable for investment, it's seen its stock market take a real pounding in the past week or so. These exactly are the images people do not want to be broadcast for the sake of the Turkish economy. A slight quite now, but, you know, we were hoping tomorrow, many protesters hoping, many observers hoping that perhaps the prime minister may sit down with the sometimes fractured or (INAUDIBLE) leadership of this particular protest and begin to talk about a resolution. But I don't quite see, given the scenes of the past few hours, how such talk around a table can necessarily lead anywhere fruitful, Hala.

People surely increasingly angry down in that crowd. And again, it is remarkable to see, they have pushed back again, surging back towards the center of the square. Almost (INAUDIBLE).

Just hear that. Cracking noise we've just heard. That sea of sounds like yet more tear gas. You were asking me, Hala, what is that fire in the center of the square?


WALSH: I understand from my colleague, Alex Plat (ph), the cameraman, who's got a better view through the lens, that it seems to be one of the mobile phone trucks that have been moved in by phone companies to boost controversially signals here for some of the protesters, to make it perhaps easier for them to use social media, post pictures, statements about what they're seeing around here. But one of those now appears to be on fire.

Another larger fire actually being -- having things thrown on to it to keep it going. That is actually a barricade the protesters have in fact erected. I think that's what you're seeing on the Reuters images right now.

But, again, that remarkable scene of when they're pushed back by tear gas, the protesters, taking a while for the wind to blow it away and then moving back again. You've got to ask, what is the authority plan here to bring this to an end.


GORANI: Are the protestors simply going in and out of the square or are they responding in kind with Molotov cocktails and other things? What is their behavior right now?

WALSH: It's hard to see in this kind of low light. I have not seen that many people throwing rocks. I've seen it throughout the day, rocks, Molotov cocktails, fireworks being fired. We have seen those fireworks earlier on being fired at armored police vehicles. It's hard to tell if the crowd is surging back and attacking the police. But regardless, they're pushing forward no matter how much tear gas is thrown their way.


GORANI: All right, Nick Paton Walsh is in our Istanbul bureau overlooking Taksim Square. We'll get back to our Arwa Damon. She's in Gezi Park. Gezi Park is right next to Taksim Square in central Istanbul, for those of you who visited Turkey before. And Istanbul, just to recap for our viewers in the United States and our viewers watching us all around the world, we are watching live these dramatic scenes unfold in Istanbul, really highlighting a divide in Turkey between the government of the prime minister, Erdogan. A man who's been in power since 2003. Who inherited an economy in tatters and then revived it. But, however increasingly has been perceived by some of his opponents as being too authoritarian, as trying to impose his own vision of a certain political Islam on a country that prides itself, in many cases, on its secular tradition, modern Turkey.

You're seeing there a fire raging in the center of Taksim Square in Istanbul. Certainly a very unusual scene. And riot police are clashing with protesters.

These protesters now who have been, or in some cases there in that square and in the neighboring park, for more than a week now. They have been saying for several days that they want the government to acknowledge that it is overplaying its hand. However, the prime minister, Erdogan, has taken on a very hard line. He said today essentially that his patience is not limitless, that it is over, that these demonstrations are illegal.

Once again, live images coming to us from Istanbul. And over the last several days, we've seen protests not just in Istanbul but in Ankara and in other parts of the country.

That being said, the prime minister, Erdogan, is not at all unpopular. He won the last election. His party has a majority in parliament. And so he has the support of many people in the country.

On the left-hand side of your screen there you're seeing the plumes of smoke there hanging over Taksim Square of tear gas. Arwa Damon there, who's having to wear a gas mask because of how much tear gas has been fired into the square, is joining me now live with more on what she's seeing.

Are you still in Gezi Park there, Arwa?

DAMON: OK. One, two, three, four, five. Can you come to me now, please? OK. We're right now in the very front of the park. You can see people trying to help us out because of the tear gas. The entire front part of the park right now has been cleared out because of the intensity of what was just fired in.

And this, again, is not what people here were expecting after their government promised them that they would be allowed to stay in this position. And along the side streets, on either side of this park, the streets actually go straight to Taksim Square. Taksim Square is straight up in that direction. Tear gas being fired in. People moving up the streets throwing rocks. We hear them clanking, chanting, trying to move forward. And then they are continuously being driven back.

But a lot of the people that are actually living here, camped out here in Taksim Square, say that they are peaceful demonstrators. They say that all they want to do is save the trees. Now they're in a situation where they're fighting, they say, against an authoritarian government. People are incredibly angry, infuriated as to the way the government has been handling all of this.

But it's become a bit of a routine. Tear gas is fired in, people clear out and then they move right back in. Nothing it seems (INAUDIBLE) at this stage, Hala, is going to be deterring them.

GORANI: What was that man spraying into your eyes, Arwa?

DAMON: It's like this pepper minty thing. I don't know exactly what it is or what they've put into it, but it really helps with the burn in the eyes. And there's a number of them that just circulate around here. And the minute tear gas is fired, they'll walk up to people who seem like they're in pain and struggling with it and they'll just spray it directly at them. They also, earlier in the day, when riot police tried to enter into the (INAUDIBLE) were then driven back by the demonstrators. They had also set up a blanket that they had soaked in water for people to hide under when the tear gas came in because they said that after the government's behavior this morning, they were fully expecting that there would be some other sort of an attack that would take place later on in the day.

What I think took us all by surprise to a certain degree though is that after the riot police cleared out of Taksim Square, and we saw that massive demonstration taking place there, a lot of people were saying that it seemed as if they would not employ these same tactics. And again, at least not tonight.

But, of course, now we've seen that not to be the case. And just to remind our viewers, we were down in Taksim Square when that all began and we were right next to what seemed to be some sort of an altercation between demonstrators, a group of riot police. Demonstrators were calling for a calm but this situation escalated literally within seconds with then volleys of tear gas, water cannons, and now we have this situation as it is around now.

On that loud speaker right now someone is saying to people, slow down, slow down, please don't panic.

GORANI: Is the situation escalating now? I mean, are protesters also responding with Molotov cocktails and things like that or not or is it a standoff?

DAMON: Well, from our vantage point here, inside the park, we have not seen any Molotov cocktails being thrown tonight. We have seen some people throwing rocks. You can hear that pounding sound coming, now people clapping in rhythm with it. That's coming from the side street. A lot of those people are going up throwing rocks at the riot police. They're actually doing it from the side street, not from the park itself.

But I don't know if we can try to turn around and see maybe what's happening. It's a bit dark right now. But if you'll bear with us, we'll try to move down there and see what's taking place because it's quieting down a bit.

But we do see people continuously trying to move up, back towards Taksim Square. But there are a number of different groups who are here. You have those groups that are trying to move towards the square, trying to front the riot police. And then you have the people that are in Gezi Park. They just move back and forth as these tear gas volleys come in. They'll withdraw and then they'll move right back up.

GORANI: Well, what happened to prompt all this? We were talking an hour and a half ago and everything seemed pretty calm where you were.

DAMON: It did. Look, the situation here, ever since these demonstrations first began, again, here in Gezi Park, because of a government plan to try to turn this into a shopping mall, have really been ebbing and flowing. And it's been very difficult to determine exactly what the government's strategy is. A lot of the anger initially arose against the government because of the heavy-handed tactics.