Tens of thousands of Erdogan supporters stage rally in Istanbul

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rallied tens of thousands of his supporters in Istanbul on Sunday, hours after ordering a crackdown on anti-government protesters in a city park and sending tensions soaring in two weeks of unrest.

Hundreds of riot police continued to fire tear gas and jets of water during the day at pockets of demonstrators determined to regroup after being evicted from Gezi Park overnight.

Some 10km away, in a much larger park, buses unloaded scores of supporters of Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for an election rally billed as a show of strength in response to the unrest.

"May the hands that touch the police be broken" and "The people are here, where are the looters?" they chanted, using one of Mr Erdogan's descriptions of the demonstrators.

The defiant slogans came a day after the AKP held a similar election rally in the capital Ankara, where Mr Erdogan had some combative words for the protest movement, which poses the biggest challenge yet to his Islamic-rooted government's decade-long rule.

"This country's security forces know how to evacuate (Gezi Park)," he told a sea of cheering loyalists waving red Turkish flags.

"Nobody can intimidate us," he warned. "We don't take orders or instructions from anybody except from God."

Two hours later, officers with gas masks and riot shields stormed the patch of green. Thousands of campers scrambled to escape clouds of acrid tear gas, clearing the site within minutes and leaving a trail of empty tents in their wake.

Many sought refuge in the luxury hotels bordering the park, prompting the police to douse the lobby of at least one five-star establishment with water as guests choked on tear gas fumes.

Thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Ankara and the western city of Izmir in solidarity overnight.

Early on Sunday, the police again used gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds who gathered in Ankara's central Kizilay area to lay flowers at the spot where a protester was fatally wounded on June 1.

Two of Turkey's major labour unions, KESK and DISK, were meanwhile in talks to discuss calling a nationwide general strike to protest at the overnight police violence.

The political turmoil first began when a peaceful sit-in to save Gezi Park's 600 trees from being razed prompted a brutal police response on May 31, spiralling into countrywide demonstrations against Mr Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.

The crisis has claimed four lives and injured nearly 7,500 people so far, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

Opponents accuse Mr Erdogan of repressing critics and of forcing Islamic conservative reforms on the mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation of 76 million.

But the 59-year-old, who has been in power since 2002, remains hugely popular. The AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.

Ms Mey Elbi, a 39-year-old yoga teacher, was in Gezi Park when the police entered, and she said they seized protesters' goggles and gas masks.

"I won't give up," she told Agence France-Presse. "We're angry, this is not over. The world has seen that together, we can stand up to Tayyip."

The Taksim Solidarity group, seen as most representative of the protesters, condemned Saturday's "brutal attack", which it said had left "hundreds" injured.

Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu said 44 people had been hurt, none seriously.

By Sunday evening, Gezi Park and the adjoining Taksim Square, another focal point for the protests, were sealed off and guarded with a heavy police presence.

Yellow tape lined the area, blocking entry to pedestrians, as refuse trucks and bulldozers removed debris and broke up protesters' makeshift barricades.

"The government could not have let this occupation go on forever," AKP deputy leader Huseyin Celik said in televised remarks. "This nightmare needs to end."

Mr Celik also said Mr Erdogan felt "cheated" after protesters rejected his offer to suspend the Gezi redevelopment project pending a court ruling on its legality.

But the Taksim Solidarity group said the government had failed to address all their demands, which include a call for arrested demonstrators to be released and for police chiefs in cities that saw clashes to be sacked.

Meanwhile, Turkey's European Union Minister Egemen Bagis, whose role is to promote Ankara's aspiration to join the 27-member bloc, said demonstrators who refused to stay off the streets would be considered "a supporter or a member of a terrorist organisation".

The United States and other Western allies, along with human rights groups, have widely criticised Mr Erdogan's handling of the crisis.

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