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Police Unleash Tear Gas On Protesters In Istanbul

Aired June 11, 2013 - 14:30   ET


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

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: 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. It's been very difficult to determine exactly what the government's strategy is. A lot of the anger initially arose because of the heavy handed tactics used by the riot police.

That escalated throughout the day today. We've been seeing clashes taking place, intermittent periods of calm and then in the evening it seemed as if the riot police were going to allow the demonstrators to not just occupy Gazey Park, they said they would not enter the park itself, but to actually move into Taksim Square.

There was a call that went out on twitter calling for demonstrators to converge on Taksim Square itself at 7:00 p.m. There were thousands if not tens of thousands of people there and then in one corner of Taksim Square, a scuffle broke out. That led to all of this, an incredibly volatile situation here -- Hala.

GORANI: Arwa Damon, thanks very much. Stand by. Arwa has her gas mask on her head to use it and it seems like she's going to be needing it in the coming hours in Gazey Park near Taksim Square, dramatic scenes unfolding live coming to us from Istanbul.

For our viewers in the United States, this is the center of Istanbul. These things do not happen in Istanbul normally. We are entering our second week of dramatic and some might say even perhaps historic anti- government protests.

Christiana Amanpour joins me now live from New York with more analysis on what's happening right now in Turkey. Christiana, as you know, the prime minister said he would sit down and talk with protesters and then this happened, something that seemed quite sudden in Taksim.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, indeed. Of course, it did start overnight Turkish time when police did go into those areas and try to clear out parts of that area. We do understand, of course, that the prime minister has said that he wants to meet with some of the protesters. It looks like he wants to meet with those who are environmentally concerned. He's given speeches and statements today in which he clearly indicated that his patience is running out, that he said this is the end. This demonstration has to stop. We won't let it go on any longer. He did also say that he believed that there were certain elements, as he put it, who were bent on damaging Turkey's economy, ruining Turkey's image.

Quite a lot of sort of conspiracy theories always tend to arise at this time and in these kinds of situations by leaders who are taken by surprise by the ferocity of the demonstrations against them and he is quite publicly blaming media, international media, conspiracies and others.

On the other hand, he has said that what started as an environmental protest has been sort of hijacked and taken out of control. I want to read you something that we got from one of the members of the Turkish government on the government side about why these police have gone into the square right now.

Let me read you what a government official has send to us. He basically said this is a major public square, Taksim, as we all know, it is. All of us who have been there know that Taksim Square is a vital part of Istanbul. He said it is not a tiny part of the town referring to Zuccotti Park referring, of course, to the smaller part here in Manhattan that was the genesis for the "Occupy Wall Street" movement that began.

He said that Taksim has been under occupation for two weeks. The police have constantly been urging the protesters to withdraw since this morning. He said despite the attacks from the protesters with Molotov cocktails, stones and fireworks.

So basically he's putting out the government point of view. What we can see is that this is unfolding in a sort of a standoff. It's not as violent as we've seen in some other situations that have been like this perhaps in other parts of that region. There is a sort of a cat and mouse game going on is that we've been able to see.

Of course, Arwa and Nick Paton Walsh have been heroically broadcasting this to us over the past hour or so, but it seems to be that that is what's going on. But certainly the prime minister, who has ironically been responsible for so much good in Turkey over the 11 or so years he has been in office, major democratic reforms.

Indeed, even reining in the police from rather unfettered access they used to have before he came into power, reforming all sorts of judicial and other institutions and importantly sidelining the old powerful Turkish military from politics. He has now arrived at the situation where he's been in power for this amount of time and has shown this in the initial moments of this demonstration that he was unable to listen. This is what seems to be playing out right now.

GORANI: Right. You, of course, remind our viewers of so much good that the prime minister has achieved. Economically Turkey is doing very, very well especially in an economic environment around the world where there has been so much recession and depression. But then again, you have the situation where he's blamed for being authoritarian, where journalists are jailed in Turkey. There's the impression that he wants to impose in a secular country a brand of political Islam that his opponents fear so much.

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, this has been a great issue of debate amongst many, many people. The Turkish government has said over and over again that it is not an Islamic government as you might find in Iran. We can see that. We know that. That it has no plans to make Turkey into an Islamic republic in the way that you see in places like Iran and elsewhere.

Certainly many in the west have been concerned as to whether Turkey is more in the western camp or in the eastern camp these days. The United States, President Obama, members of the European allies who have Turkey as a NATO ally and as a very strong, reliable ally believe that it is much more in the western camp. So I think that's very important.

Obviously recently what has upset the young secular urban professional classes of Turkey is the potential fear because that was what was raised with this restricting of alcohol recently. You know they've just passed that, restricting of the use of alcohol or any public spaces. Not in private but in public spaces, restricting the images of alcohol and advertising, alcohol on the air waves.

This is something that actually takes place also in many other western democracies. You can't always see alcohol on the television or on billboards, but people are concerned because amongst some members of Turkey there is a fear about that. I think what's happened is that people believed that he's just getting too authoritarian to listen to them.

I listened to him many months ago, in September, in fact, and I asked him about these complaints and he said, for instance, look, I believe in democracy. I have shown that I believe in democracy. He refused to accept that he was even slightly developing an authoritarian streak.

When I asked him about journalists, unfortunately, I happen to be a member of the committee to protect journalists. It's come out with a major report showing that Turkey is one of the world's largest jailers of journalists. And this is, you know, something that the people of Turkey, certain classes, as I say, feel is stifling, this, amongst other things.

On the other hand, as you've reported and we've been reporting, there is a huge swath of the country which is very supportive of prime minister. What's you're seeing is a first major test of his authority. Don't forget, he was out of the country for a considerable period of time at a conference in Morocco when this all started.

GORANI: All right, Christiana, we'll talk in just a moment. I want to go back to Nick Paton Walsh because apparently things are heating up in the square right now. What can you see from your vantage point, Nick? NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Forgive the strange lighting here. We're trying to dim lights to not attract attention to where we're broadcasting from, but since we last spoke, significant developments behind me. Yet again, we saw protesters massing on that central monument in the heart of Taksim Square, but right now volleys of tear gas fired again, forcing everybody to flee yet again. You can still hear that tear gas firing. I'll pause to give you a second.

An enormous volley, pushing people down the streets, we've seen this before. We've seen them rally again. This is a sustained volley from the police. Once again, the question is where does this end? How do police restore order in the center of Istanbul? We can see these exchanges happening very much all night.

One canister landed very close to the protesters. They've become adept at picking them up throwing them back towards the police. Yes, it's really being blown by the wind in all direction at this point. The fire still burns, four of them now, in the very center of Taksim Square.

GORANI: All right, Nick Paton Walsh is still there.

WALSH: You still hear the chanting of protesters -- Hala.

GORANI: -- overlooking Taksim square. Just want to reset there the coverage for our viewers who are joining us in the United States because these are all live images you're seeing. This is a fire burning in the center of Taksim Square in Istanbul. I imagine Taksim Square, if you were to compare it to a square in the United States, it could be Times Square, it could be if you're in Washington, Dupont Circle or whatnot.

So you have really this beating heart of an important city in Turkey, the largest city in Turkey. The capital also saw some demonstrations. Protesters there saying, you know, enough is enough of this authoritarian prime minister and government we have. But as we were discussing with Christiana Amanpour, the prime minister of Turkey, unlike the demonstrations we saw in the Arab world, this is a democratically elected government with a sizeable support base in this country.

Many of these demonstrators are not saying let's overthrow our government. They're simply saying we want a modified behavior from our leadership. We don't want this authoritarianism. We did not vote for a sort of a political Islam Turkish brand of political Islam as they see embodied by the prime minister.

So it seems as though when we look at this image that this part of the street has been cleared of protesters as we continue to hear tear gas guns being fired. Nick, can you still hear me? It seems as though the square is empty right from what I'm seeing.

WALSH: Hala, that's correct. The square is significantly empty. The police have taken back up their position. I'm afraid you can't see me because we've had to extinguish the lights in the bureau so as not to attract attention where we're broadcasting from at this particular time, heavy tear gas blowing into our bureau making it very hard to breathe, making it very hard to breathe.

GORANI: If you have to stop and put your gas mask on, just go ahead and do that.

WALSH: OK, yes, Hala, a lot of tear gas being blown in here. I think we're being saved by the wind. Alex, take that. I think we're being saved by the wind here. The police -- no, I'm sorry, I have to move back into the bureau. It's too intense where I'm standing.

GORANI: Go ahead and do that. If you have to put your gas mask on, we'll try understand you through the gas mask because, believe me, I've been in those situations, it's very unpleasant and very difficult to speak, actually.

By the way, on the right-hand side of the screen we're seeing the shot where Nick Paton Walsh was standing. He's had to retreat back into the bureau because of the tear gas and because of the fact that we can't light the position anymore in Turkey. We can't make the broadcasting position noticeable who may be able to see that particular position that we used for broadcasting. Nick, can you hear me?

WALSH: I don't know if you can now hear me where I'm standing.

GORANI: Yes, go ahead.

WALSH: Sorry about the lack of lights and the fact that I'm wearing a gas mask. We're seeing police moving towards the bureau where we're standing. They've been firing an intense round of tear gas. They're down some side streets, particularly heavy clouds there.

In fact, one protester it seems is trying to illuminate some of the advancing police with a green light. I'm not sure of the purpose of that. Tear gas so intense we had to step away from the window. It filled the whole building. Tear gas so intense we've seen them flee down the side streets.

The problem is that doesn't sustain control of the central square. The wind blows it away. The police are trying to maintain a presence in the central square near a monument, a stone grenade going off. The police are trying to maintain a presence of that central monument. Let you hear the sounds of what's happening in the square right now. Silence filling.

There are occasional stun grenades and these moments of silence. It seems like the protesters have moved down side streets, backed off, obviously unable to breathe conditions like that. Even if you have a gas mask, it's incredibly hard to see. Still firing away.

GORANI: I was going to tell our viewers watching us around the world that some Turkish tweets on Twitter have told me that Turkish television isn't even broadcasting this.

WALSH: I didn't quite hear what you said, Hala. You're saying Turkish television is not broadcasting this?

GORANI: Right. I'm not there in Turkey, but maybe you can confirm this. Turkish television is not broadcasting these scenes.

WALSH: I'm seeing one channel here, what appears to be direct pictures from where I am. I can't be 100 percent sure. There has been relentless criticism that in the past they did not initially show the clashes to their full extent or even at all in some ways. Some channels showed nature programs instead of clashes in the square, some of these armored vehicles still moving around.

Tear gas still being fired and police -- it's hard to see in the dark, but police masked around the central government. I'll take my gas mask off in a bit to speak to you more clearly. Is that kind of OK now? Forgive me. I may have to go back in a second. Now the gas is clearing slightly. We're not seeing the surge back of protesters, partially because they're still firing tear gas down the alley ways.

They've run away. Throughout the day police have been here in relatively small numbers. They've been engaged in what seem to be almost futile clashes. The police would advance. They'd throw something back. I've begun to wonder what the purpose of that standoff would be.

Tonight as you saw earlier, they gathered, the protesters, en masse when we saw the police file off into a corner of the square. They began a peaceful rally, festive protest, and then suddenly this volley of tear gas. As they watch these pictures, what does the administration want to gain by the standoff? Was this planned or has there been a failure of police tactics to actually manage to regain control of this vital part of Turkey's most important commercial hub -- Hala.

GORANI: Nick, stand by. Christiana Amanpour, our chief international correspondent joins me once again. I'm wondering, Christiana, as we watch these scenes unfold live, dramatic images, what the western allies of Turkey might be thinking, including, of course, the United States.

AMANPOUR: Well, you can imagine, Hala, this is a situation of great concern because as we've been discussing, Turkey particularly under Prime Minister Erdogan has been an ally on issue after issue after issue. On the hand, Turkey has been on the sidelines pressing its nose against the window trying to join the European Union.

There are some British and international leaders who believed that it's been unfairly discriminated against and sidelined from joining Europe. All of that to say whether it's Syria, Iran, any other issues, Turkey has been a reliable ally, including in U.S.-led military ventures certainly over the last 10, 11 years.

Look, what's going on is, as we've said, what started as a peaceful protest, couple of weeks ago, then was responded to by violence by the police has sprung out of control, nobody notion how to put the brakes on, not the people in the squares and not the prime minister himself. He has lurched from condemning these protests wholesale out of hand calling them louts and riffraff today saying his patience was wearing thin.

Today saying that actually the Turkish economy, which he has spurred into one of the rare success stories certainly in the European area, the European market really made Turkey an economic powerhouse while many of the European economies has been suffering as we all know. He now, you know, facing investor confidence.

He's worried about the currency dropping. How does he put an end to this in a way that avoids further violence and can actually calm this situation down? We'll see. It seems perhaps unlikely that this meeting between him and some of these protesters might continue tomorrow. Maybe it will do.

What we know, certainly I spoke to British former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw a while ago who himself was in Turkey during these riots. He was on other business. He is one who has long been a proponent of turkey joining the E.U. He said even the opposition party admitted to him when he was there that before Erdogan, these kinds of protests wouldn't have gotten off the ground.

They would have been crushed instantly and instantaneously. We all remember, we all remember the heavy presence of the Turkish military in politics. That is something that Erdogan has basically sidelined and effectively put a stop to, but everybody worries about that. Even Erdogan himself in his recent speeches has sort of dartly hinted to the last times there was this kind of uproar and there was coupes in the '60s and 80s, military coupes.

There is that. There is also the question that three times elected 11 years in power, despite his very, very solid relationships and alliances with the west, mainly amongst his people, particularly a certain young secular business modern class want to have more freedom of space, more political freedom.

There is a deep sense and a deep reality that quite a lot of political dissent is stifled, political opposition to an extent, certainly journalists have been arrested and jailed in a manner that exceeds many other countries in the world and this is what is the secondary effects of these protests, which started with a simple save the trees in Gezi Park. How the people and politicians will resolve this have is what we have to watch right now.

GORANI: One has to wonder, Christiana, is if Prime Minister Erdogan had acted differently earlier on, if this would be happening today.

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, that is a very good question. He was out of the country during the beginning of this and those who I've spoken to believe he was taken by surprise possibly because this kind of challenge to his authority has never happened. That surprises people who have been undisputed leaders for quite so long.

It's just like that. People who have been in power with very little opposition, very little challenge simply don't, you know, absorb this kind of challenge well. On the other hand, he and other members of his party have said from the beginning that there was a legitimate protest. And there was a group which they -- in their words, to me, hijacked these protests, turned them violent and expanded the mandate of these protests. As I've heard many, many times, leaders say to me when these kinds of things happen it's an international conspiracy, it's a conspiracy of the international media.

GORANI: You blame Twitter. You blame Twitter, Christiana, at one point for spreading misinformation essentially not listening to them. That was the perception and that's what got some of them so angry and so determined.

AMANPOUR: Indeed and, again, others have been saying the same thing, that this has got to this point where nobody knows how to take a step back, how to get their backs away from the wall, get themselves out of the corners that they've painted themselves into and how to resolve this.

But certainly the prime minister said this was enough, that he understood certain protesters and the mandate of those that had started the peaceful protest in the end of May, but that the patience had run out and these demonstrations are over and we will not tolerate them anymore and clearly that's what we're seeing in Taksim Square tonight.

GORANI: Christiana Amanpour, our chief international correspondent, thanks very much. We'll see you on "AMANPOUR" later on CNN at the top of the hour. Arwa Damon is on the phone. Arwa, are you still in Gezi Park right near Taksim? What's going on?

DAMON (via telephone): Yes, we still are. A while ago there was a pretty intense volley of gas that again came into here. Everyone had to clear out to the back end of the park. We were standing next to one of the medical stations they had set up. They were bringing in a number of people clearly suffering from inhaling too much tear gas.

A lot of the volunteers actually asked us to leave, to not film anything in that area because they say that they are volunteering here. They don't want their identities disclosed. They are concerned the government is going to come after them. We are still seeing swarms of people still in the park.

A lot of them, again, as I was saying did go to the back end of it because of the intensity of the tear gas. They have stations where people are getting liquid ready to spray into each other's eyes to try to deal with everything that's happening around them. People's tempers most certainly are flaring.

They're trying to deal with the number of individuals suffering from tear gas. We're hearing people screaming that they don't have enough medics, enough medical supply. People are trying to calm others down when they start running when that tear gas is fired. Quite a stampede that can be pretty dangerous as you can imagine -- Hala.

GORANI: Arwa, stand by. Let me go to Nick Paton Walsh. He had to retreat indoors and we had to switch the camera light off as well. Nick, can you hear me? WALSH: Yes, Hala, I can hear you. What we've seen is that continued volley of tear gas, much of it drifting up towards our position. As you saw, I have to go off between statements into the gas mask. What we're seeing below is not the rally of supporters and demonstrators surging back towards the square. A consistent use of tear gas makes that pretty much impossible.

The fires are still burning that we saw earlier on. There are a few people scattered around here. Some seem to be thinking about heading in some direction, but getting how dark it is, unfortunately with the gas mask I'm wearing, I can't see what's happening around the corner. Ambulances are moving into the central square. The police are keeping the position you've seen before.

We've seen protesters moving around staying away from Taksim Square itself moving down the side streets. Again, quiet. People are trying to figure out where this next goes. Certainly I'm sure for those in Gezi Park where Arwa is, panic. Listen to how it doesn't seem to stop.

GORANI: Nick, it appears as though the riot police have the upper hand right now. Is that fair to say? Have they cleared the square?

WALSH: Unquestionably, unsurprisingly. Professionally trained, equipped, and many would imagine planning this for days. Although it's hard to see what the strategy is. This is into its 12th hour. Tear gas being fired again and again, somewhat reasonably lowly fired. They're down the side streets. We touched back into Istanbul away from Taksim Square.

Lots of tear gas, a substantial police presence in the very center of the square itself, of course, the question is, what is the end game here? What are they trying to prove to demonstrators? Are they trying to restore order from the center of the city? Wherever you stand on the lines of this protest, nobody likes seeing scenes like this, very hard in the commercial hub of Turkey. Definitely a question would be exactly how can you bring this to an end?

GORANI: Nick, we're going to let you take a break. Breathe freely in your gas mask if you can. Just to recap for our viewers joining us here in the United States, but also around the world watching these dramatic pictures coming to us live once again with fires burning in the center of Istanbul in Taksim Square, protesters against the government of Prime Minister Erdogan.

They're saying they oppose his authoritarian style, that they are tired of their leader not listening to them, all these escalating in quite a dramatic fashion this evening with a standoff between riot police and protesters that escalated into clashes, tear gas, water cannon. Now it appears riot police are clearly in control. The question, what will happen next? Let's turn it over to my colleague Christiane Amanpour in New York -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Indeed, welcome to viewers around the world and in the United States as we continue CNN's breaking news coverage of these demonstrations that are continuing in Taksim Square, in the center of Istanbul, which is in Turkey.