More than 1,700 detained in Turkey during nationwide protests

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Thousands of people were on Sunday occupying Istanbul's Taksim Square, the epicentre of the worst demonstrations in a decade against Turkey's Islamist-rooted government that have seen more than 1,700 people detained and scores wounded.

A sea of protesters from across Turkey's political spectrum were camping out in the iconic square, chanting "government, resign!" and "Istanbul is ours, Taksim is ours!" as they celebrated after the police pulled out of the site on Saturday.

Taksim has been at the heart of a wave of demonstrations in 67 cities nationwide, the biggest public outcry against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government since it assumed power in 2002.

In Ankara, the police fired tear gas and used water cannon to disperse some 1,000 protesters who were attempting to march on the Prime Minister's office.

The unrest began as a local outcry against plans to redevelop Gezi Park near Taksim Square, but after a heavy-handed police response it quickly snowballed into broader protests against what critics say is the government's increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda.

"They call me a dictator," Mr Erdogan said in a speech on Sunday, a day after he called for an immediate end to the protests. "If they liken a humble servant to a dictator, then I am at a loss for words."

After two days of violent protests and appeals by Turkey's Western allies for restraint, the situation appeared to have calmed down in Istanbul on Sunday after the police pulled out of Taksim and officials took on a more conciliatory tone.

Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Guler on Sunday said more than 1,700 people had been arrested, though most have since been released.

"A large majority of the detainees were released after being questioned and identified," he said in remarks carried by the state-run Anatolia news agency.

He added that the country had seen 235 demonstrations since Tuesday.

Officials said 53 civilians and 26 police officers were hurt during the violence, while Amnesty International put the number of wounded in the hundreds, and said there had been two deaths.

Mr Erdogan on Saturday insisted his government would press ahead with the controversial redevelopment, though he said the project may not include a shopping mall, as feared by protesters.

He also admitted "some mistakes" in the police response to the protest.

Ms Eylem Yildirim, a 36-year-old housewife and protester at Taksim, said she had expected the crowds to die down after the weekend, but said the people had made their point and the government knew they were "bitter and at the limits of their patience".

Amnesty said some protesters had been left blinded by the massive quantities of tear gas and pepper spray used by the police over two days, while at least two people were hit in the head with gas canisters.

Turkey's Western allies Britain, France and the United States had earlier called for the Erdogan government to exercise restraint.

"We have learnt our lesson," Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas told NTV on Saturday.

He said he regretted "not informing the people enough" about the details of the construction project in Taksim.

Mass-circulation newspaper Milliyet meanwhile plastered a picture of the packed square on its front page with the headline "Freedom Park".

Turkish officials said a dozen people hurt in the protests were being treated in hospitals, and that one of them was in intensive care after brain surgery.

Amnesty's Europe director John Dalhuisen said police excesses had become routine in Turkey, "but the excessively heavy-handed response to the entirely peaceful protests in Taksim has been truly disgraceful".

Human Rights Watch said the number of people injured was higher than official figures suggested, and said one protester had lost an eye after the police shot him with a plastic bullet.

The US State Department had called on Nato member Turkey to uphold "fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing".

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the local media that Paris was calling for "moving towards a peaceful solution". But he rejected comparisons with the Arab Spring uprisings, saying: "We are dealing (in Turkey) with a government that was democratically elected."

Some 1,800 people also rallied in Vienna on Saturday to criticise the Erdogan government and show their support for the protesters in Istanbul.

The Turkey protests also follow a controversial new law introduced by Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party that will restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol, a move that has sparked complaints that the government is trying to impose an Islamic agenda.

Mr Erdogan's populist government is often accused of trying to make the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country more conservative, and has also been criticised for its crackdown on opponents, including Kurds, journalists and the military.