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Police use tear gas on Turkey May Day protesters


map_of_turkeyTurkish police on Friday used water cannon and tear gas to disperse May Day protesters in Istanbul as tens of thousands of labour activists turned out worldwide to defend their rights at a time of austerity.

As Turkish police and protesters engaged in pitched battles in some districts of Istanbul, the Italian city of Milan also saw violent clashes at the opening of the Expo 2015.

Turkish police had blocked all vehicle access and cut public transport to prevent protests on Taksim Square in the centre of Istanbul, the traditional focus for demonstrations in the country’s largest city.

Police moved in on the protesters in the Besiktas district close to the shores of the Bosphorus as they tried to head towards the square, using water cannon trucks and spraying tear gas, an AFP correspondent said.

Istanbul governor Vali Sahin said that 203 people had been arrested, and six police and 18 protesters had been wounded in a day of clashes around Istanbul.

This is the first May Day in Turkey, a national holiday in the country, to be marked after parliament passed a controversial security bill this year giving the police greater powers to crack down on protests.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration — shaken by weeks of deadly anti-government protests in May-June 2013 centred on Taksim Square — is hugely nervous about public demonstrations ahead of June 7 legislative elections.

“I find that this insistance on (protests in) Taksim is wrong. Having a meeting in Taksim means basically paralysing all Istanbul,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

He also lashed out at foreign media for focusing on unrest in Turkey to “smear” the country while ignoring the violence in Baltimore in the United States.

“Not a single word about the recent events in America. No criticism at all,” he fumed.

– Clashes at Milan expo –

Thousands of people packed into the centre of Athens in response to a call from public and private unions, joined by the country’s controversial anti-austerity Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.

In Moscow, tens of thousands of workers and students paraded on Red Square, waving Russian flags and balloons and many with T-shirts of President Vladimir Putin, in a spectacle harking back to Soviet times.

In Milan, Italian police clashed with protesters at the opening of the Expo, firing tear gas at the masked demonstrators who had pelted officers with stones.

The protesters also set several vehicles and rubbish bins on fire and set off firecrackers and smoke bombs on the opening day of the Expo, which opponents say is a needless waste of public funds at a time of austerity.

In South Korea, tens of thousands of workers held May Day rallies, vowing to wage an “all-out general strike” if the government pushes through with planned labour reforms.

Throughout Germany, some 400,000 people took to the streets, the main union confederation said.

– ‘No other way’ –

In the Istanbul district of Okmeydani, known as a hub for the far-left, protesters engaged in ferocious clashes with police, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.

A small group of a few dozen Communist protesters who tried to protest in the centre of Taksim Square were immediately surrounded by police who roughly arrested several people.

Taksim Square has been a flashpoint for clashes on Labour Day since dozens of people were killed there on May 1, 1977 when modern Turkey was going through one of its most turbulent periods.

“In 1977 there was a massacre. We simply want to be there (on Taksim) to commemorate that date. We cannot do it any other way, it is too symbolic for us,” Umar Karatepe, a leader of the DISK labour confederation, told AFP.

Turkish media said 20,000 police had been deployed in Istanbul backed up by 62 water cannon trucks.

The blocking of traffic left some locals with long walks to carry out their business while travellers carrying heavy luggage were stranded as they sought a ride to the airport.

In an apparent bid to discourage protests, the city’s main metro line was halted well before Taksim and services on the city tram service were stopping halfway.

Taksim Square, usually thronged with thousands of people in the day, was deserted save for police, journalists and plain clothes security agents.

With the peak of the protests subsiding, the authorities said roads would gradually be reopened to the public from 1500 GMT.

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