Clashes, chaos erupt at protester’s funeral in Ankara

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ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) — A funeral procession for a slain protester turned into chaos Sunday in Ankara as Turkish riot police used water cannons and tear gas to try to disperse rock-throwing demonstrators.

In Istanbul, authorities faced off with protesters attempting to retake a park that has become the focal point of anti-government demonstrations targeting the policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The clashes came as thousands of Erdogan supporters gathered at a rally a few miles from Istanbul’s Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park, which police sealed off Saturday after forcibly removing protesters from the area.

On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators were packed into side streets around the square and park amid a thick fog of tear gas, vowing to retake the park.

The clashes in Ankara erupted around the funeral procession for Ethem Sarisuluk, who was shot in the head two weeks ago during protests. Authorities had warned against a gathering, and CNN witnessed a heavy police presence in and around Kiziyali Square while the procession was underway.

At one point, Sarisuluk’s brother knelt in the middle of the road in an attempt to stop oncoming traffic, while police fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators, who in turn threw rocks at police and put up makeshift barricades to block off streets.

The protests started at the end of May over the prime minister’s plan to turn Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a mall. They quickly turned into large anti-government demonstrations that included calls for political reforms.

In Istanbul on Sunday, a large crowd of Erdogan supporters gathered, singing songs and waving flags, an event that was widely viewed as a re-election campaign event for the prime minister.

Erdogan, who has been defiant to protest demands, compared his supporters with the protesters: “Hundreds of thousands in here are not like the vandals with petrol-bombs in their hands.”

While the anti-government protests are unlikely to threaten the rule of Erdogan, who has been one of Turkey’s most popular leaders and is credited with the country’s decade of economic growth, they are raising questions about what critics say is a growing authoritarian rule.

For his part, Erdogan accuses outsiders of taking advantage of the protests at Gezi Park.

Thugs or protesters?

At least 29 people were injured in clashes Saturday as police sealed off Taksim Square and stormed Gezi Park, Istanbul Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu said.

Police had warned demonstrators who have occupied Istanbul’s last remaining green space for more than two weeks to depart voluntarily or face being ejected.

Erdogan complained Saturday that demonstrators were not meeting him halfway.

“We have reached out with our hands,” he said. “However, some people returned their fists in response. Can you shake hands with those who reach out with a fist?”

He also ridiculed the protesters’ assertions that they are environmentalists, calling them “thugs” and citing their honking of horns as evidence of their insincerity. “This is called noise pollution,” he said.

He accused demonstrators of inciting sectarian violence by attacking a woman in a headscarf, kicking her, dragging her on the ground and snatching her head cover.

He said some demonstrators entered a mosque wearing shoes, drank alcohol there and wrote insulting slogans on the walls — acts forbidden by Muslims.

Erdogan praised his government’s performance over the past 10 years, citing a rising standard of living, a quintupling of the central bank’s reserves and plans to build an airport.

Root of protests

The unrest began in Istanbul nearly three weeks ago, when a small group of people turned out to protest government plans to bulldoze Gezi Park and replace it with a shopping mall housed inside a replica of 19th-century Ottoman barracks.

Protesters said the plans represented a creeping infringement on their rights in a secular society.

Turkey was founded after secularists in the early 20th century defeated Islamic Ottoman forces, and many modern-day secularists frown on Ottoman symbols.

The protests broadened into an outpouring in the square and throughout the country as security forces cracked down on demonstrators.

The unrest also signaled political danger for Erdogan, a populist and democratically elected politician serving his third term in office.