Turkish unions strike after weekend of street clashes

ISTANBUL (CNN) -- Turkish trade unions put fresh pressure on the country's prime minister Monday by holding a nationwide strike after a weekend of violent unrest in major cities.

Describing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government as "despotic," two main union blocs marched in Istanbul. Crowds headed toward the city's Taksim Square, which has been at the heart of more than two weeks of protests. But demonstrators dispersed after riot police armed with water cannons blocked their path.

Protesters read statements criticizing Erdogan and decrying what they called police brutality.

Small clashes between protesters and riot police erupted on side streets near the square, but for the most part demonstrators quickly left the area.

Thousands of union members also marched in the capital, Ankara.

Monday marked the second time unions have called a strike to support the protest movement.

Police and anti-government demonstrators had faced off once again around Taksim Square on Sunday, a day after authorities had cleared the adjacent Gezi Park by force.

Thousands of protesters calling for Erdogan's resignation attempted to return to the square and park, only to be pushed back by police. The neighborhood south of the park was filled with a burning smell as police swept through the area, firing tear gas at knots of protesters in the streets.

Some groups of demonstrators have shifted to protesting in their local neighborhoods in the city, putting up barricades. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in confrontations between police and protesters is turning uglier.

"Now it feels like there is a level of desperation," said Clare Murray, who was vacationing in Istanbul from New York for the past week. "The police seem more comfortable with using aggression."

Rallies and counter-rallies

Since Saturday night, 116 people have been detained during protests in Ankara and 242 people have been detained in Istanbul demonstrations, said Huseyin Aslan, general secretary of the Progressive Lawyers Association.

The protests started at the end of May over authorities' plans to turn Gezi Park into a mall. They quickly turned into large anti-government demonstrations that included calls for political reforms.

While the protests are unlikely to threaten the rule of Erdogan, who has been one of Turkey's most popular leaders and is credited with overseeing a decade of economic growth, they are raising questions about what critics say is an increasingly authoritarian style of governing.

For his part, Erdogan remains defiant, accusing outsiders of taking advantage of the protests over the park.

On Sunday, thousands of Erdogan's supporters gathered at a rally a few miles from Taksim Square. They waved flags and sang songs at a rally that was widely viewed as a re-election rally for the prime minister.

Erdogan sought to contrast his supporters with the protesters. "Hundreds of thousands in here are not like the vandals with petrol-bombs in their hands," he said.

In Ankara, authorities had warned against a gathering to honor Ethem Sarisuluk, who was shot during protests two weeks ago.

The gathering took place under a heavy police presence around Kizilay Square, in a different part of the city from where Sarisuluk's funeral was taking place.

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. The protesters, in turn, threw rocks at police and put up makeshift barricades to block off streets.

One-day strike

After the weekend tumult, the trade unions added their clout to the demonstrations with their one-day strike.

The unions involved have hundreds of thousands of members across sectors that include public services and utilities such as electricity and water supply. They don't, however, have enough members to shut those industries down altogether.

Under the Erdogan government, Turkish workers have been "domesticated like animals by being kept hungry," one worker at a union office in Istanbul said.

"Gezi Park made us realize we are not animals in a herd we are individuals," said the worker, who didn't provide his name.

The previous strike during the anti-government demonstrations took place near the start of this month.

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 "noise pollution."

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.

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 roughly 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 defeated Islamic Ottoman forces in the early 20th century, 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 brought political risks for Erdogan, a populist and democratically elected politician serving his third term in office.