ISTANBUL (CNN)—Protesters seething over their treatment by security forces hurled rocks at riot police in Ankara’s Kizilay Square on Monday, the latest in a string of violent clashes that have punctuated massive anti-government demonstrations spreading across Turkey — leaving thousands injured and at least one dead in the past two days alone.
The protests united demonstrators from across the political spectrum against a common foe: security forces who unleashed tear gas and water cannons on them in response to what had been largely peaceful protests against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“There has been unprecedented violence against protesters and social protest,” demonstrator Neslihan Ozgunes said Monday.
The Turkish Medical Association claimed that at least 3,195 people had been injured in clashes Sunday and Monday. Only 26 of them were in serious or critical condition, it said. One protester, Mehmet Ayvalitas, died of his injuries, the association said.
The association reported bulk of the injuries occurred in Istanbul, where the protests began before spreading to Ankara, Izmir, Adana and other locations.
International groups including Amnesty International have criticized the police response as excessive.
In Ankara Sunday night, a CNN crew witnessed authorities roughing up at least one protester. One police officer kicked a CNN videographer, CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh reported. A CNN crew in Istanbul Sunday also witnessed bloodied protesters.
Erdogan responded Monday by dismissing the demonstrations as the work of “extreme elements” and the complaints of brutality as baseless.
“We are servants of the people, not masters. We did not use violence,” he said before leaving for a four-day trip to North Africa.
But Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, took a somewhat more conciliatory tone Monday, saying “the messages sent in good faith have been received.”
“When we talk about a democracy we of course mean the expression of the will of the people in electing the leaders of the country. But democracy does not just mean elections,” he said. “It is natural that outside of elections if there are differing opinion, situations or objections that they be voiced. And peaceful protests are a part of that.”
The protests began after plans were made to raze Gezi Park, the last green space in central Istanbul, and replace it with a replica of 19th-century Ottoman barracks. The development would contain a shopping mall.
What began as a sit-in by a handful of angry residents quickly grew into a larger protest. Riot police moved in, using tear gas and pepper spray.
Protesters responded by hurling bottles, setting up barricades, blocking bulldozers and burning trash in the middle of the street.
Then, outraged by the behavior of security forces, demonstrators began attacking police.
The protests have since morphed into larger complaints against Erdogan, whom protesters say is paternalistic and authoritarian.
“This park was just the ignition of all that,” said Yakup Efe Tuncay, a 28-year-old demonstrator who carried a Turkish flag while walking through the park Saturday.
“The Erdogan government is usually considered as authoritarian. He has a big ego; he has this Napoleon syndrome. He takes himself as a sultan. … He needs to stop doing that,” Tuncay said. “He’s just a prime minister.”
In Istanbul, the crowds have been chanting “Tayyip resign” — referring to Erdogan — and “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism.”
[Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where the protests are centered, is not a retail place or simply green space, but holy land – home to the 16th Century Pangalti Armenian Cemetery, stolen, desecrated and then demolished by the Republic of Turkey in the 1930s].
The protests have spread to 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, according to the semi-official Anadolou News Agency.
On Monday, a confederation of unions claiming some 240,000 members added its voice to the anti-Erdogan chorus, saying it would go on strike against what it called the “fascism” of Erdogan’s ruling party.
On Monday, Erdogan said opponents who had failed to defeat his party in elections were trying to beat it “by other means.”
“The issue of trees in Gezi Park thing is just the trigger,” he said.
A day earlier, he praised his accomplishments overseeing a decade of unprecedented economic growth in Turkey. He also defended his record as a leader who has planted many trees.
“They are putting on airs saying we massacre trees,” he said. “We have planted approximately 2 billion trees.”
He also downplayed claims that Turkey could be on the cusp of its own “Arab Spring” — the series of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that led to political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt, particularly.
“Those in Turkey who speak of the Turkish Spring are right; the season is, in fact, spring,” he said. “But there are those trying to turn it into a winter.”
Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for Milliyet Newspaper, said Erdogan is the most powerful and popular politician Turkey has seen in generations. But his approach to leadership doesn’t sit well with all Turks, she said.
“We have a prime minister who has done great deeds and he really has run the economy well,” she said. “But you also have this paternalistic style: ‘I know what’s good for you. I, as your father, can decide on the park, the bridge, the city and the constitution.’ So, I think people are just wanting to have a more inclusive form of democracy in Turkey.”
Hugh Pope, a senior Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group, called the protests “completely unprecedented.”
He said Erdogan was caught off guard by them. Most demonstrators, Pope said, are “overwhelmingly ordinary people” who simply want their voices heard.
“However there are other demonstrators who are somewhat more opportunistic in the left-wing factions who normally don’t get much in the way of airtime in Turkey and are camped on Taksim square,” Pope said.
“They have outposts where they are delivering their message, and in fact it has to be said that they are sometimes on the front line of the protestors in the fights against the police at the barricades,” he said.
Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said Saturday that the protesters have a right to express their discontent, within limits.
“People are entitled to disagreement with the government; they can exercise their democratic rights, but they can do so within the context of a democratic society,” he said.