Jacob Resneck, Special for USA TODAY
ISTANBUL - Riot police stormed Istanbul's Taksim Square on Tuesday, using tear gas and water cannon to scatter protesters demonstrating against plans to redevelop a nearby park.
"Now that the theater is over, I don't know what will happen now but we are waiting and we are trying to save the park still," said Nuri Kayserilioglu, 24, an economics student sitting at the edge of the square, who says the show of force was a play for the camera but he and his friends intended to occupy Gezi Park until forcefully removed.
Television cameras captured images of molotov-cocktail-throwing demonstrators who confronted armored police vehicles. By mid-afternoon, demonstrators inside Gezi Park tried to distance themselves from the violence, accusing police of using provocateurs to make sensational images of violence.
Several fires burned in the square late into Tuesday evening. Protesters exploded fireworks, threw stones and waved banners as helmeted officers in gas masks yanked down signs. Istanbul's governor tweeted that police were only there to remove banners hanging on adjoining buildings and had no intention to clear the park.
Several people were being placed into ambulances during the clashes, which have become a test of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule. His Islamist government has been assailed by many Turks as too heavy-handed against those who disagree with his policies.
Erdogan sent in riot police late last month to clear a park of peaceful sit-in protesters who wanted to save trees slated for destruction in one of Istanbul's only remaining garden parks. The move sparked nationwide unrest leaving at least three dead - including a policeman - and nearly 5,000 injured.
Erdogan said Tuesday that the occupation of the park would soon end.
"I am sorry but Gezi Park is for taking promenades, not for occupation," he said.
Erdogan also accused the park of harboring violent extremists and has accused foreign nationals of stoking the unrest. Erdogan offered no hard evidence of a foreign plot, though the movement has garnered international sympathy from foreign nationals living in Turkey.
Activists have said they are reacting against Erdogan's heavy-handed authoritarianism and not only increased restrictions on alcohol or plans to raze a park.
"I think it's really important for people to know that it's not just about alcohol prohibitions or Gezi Park," Berny Schneider, a 24-year-old intern from Germany said. "It's about human rights and the way the government treats their own people."
But how far the crackdown will proceed isn't clear. On Tuesday morning, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, Istanbul's governor, posted on Twitter that the police's objectives were limited.
"Our aim is to remove the signs and pictures on Ataturk statue and the Ataturk Cultural Centre. We have no other aim," he wrote. "Gezi Park and Taksim will not be touched."
But in his remarks Tuesday afternoon the prime minister made it clear he expected the sit-ins to end.
"I want everyone there to see the big picture, to understand the game that is being played and I especially invite them to evacuate (Taksim and Gezi Park). I expect that of them as their prime minister," he said.
Veteran activists say the mixed messages show a lack of meaningful engagement.
"There's a clear contradiction between what the governor says and the prime minister says," said Cengiz Aktar, a prominent member of the Taksim Platform, a group that has opposed redevelopment plans on Taksim Square. "The prime minister really has nothing new to say to Turkey and the world. He keeps repeating his unsubstantiated ideas."
In his remarks on Tuesday, Erdogan also lashed out at what he called the "interest rate lobby" after Istanbul's stock market took record plunges following past speeches in which he lashed out at demonstrators calling them vandals.
"They are trying to prevent Turkey's rise," Erdogan said. "(The protesters) are being used by some financial institutions, the interest rate lobby and media groups to (harm) Turkey's economy and (scare away) investments."
Aktar, a professor of political science at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, says the prime minister's speeches are an effort to rally his religiously conservative political base in a bid to quell the unrest that's mushroomed across Turkey.
"It's a mix of everything to galvanize his troops in the parliament but it doesn't correspond to the reality of this country anymore."
Police forces have been targeted by heavy criticism over their excessive use of force and practices of brutality amid clashes and local Turkish press is reporting that six policemen have committed suicide since the protests began.
Police union head Faruk Sezer told theHurriyetnewspaper that the forces too have been suffering extensively by being forced to work under severe conditions.
Policemen who have been drafted in from other cities have been sleeping on benches, shields or cardboard due to a lack of accommodation provided to them by state authorities, Sezer added.
The demonstrations follow decisions made by Erdogan's government to introduce tighter restrictions on alcohol, to wade into more social debates like reproductive rights and its boasts over attempts to raise a devout generation of youth.
But despite the anti-government unrest - unprecedented in modern Turkey - with violent clashes in Istanbul and the capital city Ankara, Erdogan remains unrepentant.