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In Turkey, Police Response to Small Sit-in Inspires Mass Protests

June 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to political unrest in Turkey, where violent demonstrations continued for a fourth consecutive day.

The Turkish government’s show of force was on full display today, as riot police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters in Ankara. The unrest initially erupted early Friday in Istanbul, after police raided a peaceful sit-in against plans to bulldoze a park.

BEYCAN TESKIREN, Protester: The resistance in one park alone has now turned into the resistance and rebellion of all the people. The park has been a symbol for the repressed and those whose voice has not been heard and then spread across the country from here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Demonstrations quickly spread to several major cities, with hundreds of people injured. The protesters are mainly secular Turks who see the government’s development plans as part of an increasingly authoritarian rule.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected the complaints today and said protest organizers are leading the young astray.

PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey: The opposition may have tricked them interest the rebellion. The extremists may have done that as well. They have networks in every city.

JEFFREY BROWN: Erdogan has been in power since 2003 and has won three landslide elections. Under his rule, Turkey has seen increasing economic growth and a heightened presence in the international community. Just last month, he visited Washington.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This visit reflects the importance that the United States places on our relationship with our ally Turkey, and I value so much the partnership that I have been able to develop with Prime Minister Erdogan.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, today, Secretary of State John Kerry questioned the Turkish government’s handling of the unrest.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY, United States: We are concerned by the reports of excessive use of force by police. We obviously hope that there will be a full investigation of those incidents and full restraint from the police force with respect to those kinds of incidents.

JEFFREY BROWN: Despite the demonstrations and the police response, there’s been very little media coverage inside Turkey.

Today, hundreds of protesters descended on a Turkish television station in Istanbul, accusing the network of collusion with the government. News of the events, however, spread throughout Turkey and the world on social media. That drew the ire of Erdogan in a statement on Sunday.

“There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” he said. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”

But Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, struck a more conciliatory tone today.

PRESIDENT ABDULLAH GUL, Turkey: In democracies, of course those who run a country are elected by votes and through the will of the people. But a democracy is not just about voting. If there are different opinions, different situations, different points of view and dissent, there is nothing more natural than being able to voice those differences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, President Bashar al-Assad issued a ban on travel to Turkey, citing security concerns. The two governments have been at odds, with Erdogan condemning Assad’s violence against his own countrymen and demanding he step down.