NEW: Police fire tear gas in Istanbul and Ankara
NEW: The protests are the biggest in some 10 years
Report: More than 700 people have been detained across the country, with most released
Prime minister tells TV audience he is no dictator
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Protesters hurled rocks and police fired tear gas in Istanbul on Sunday, the third day of demonstrations.
Thousands of protesters remained in control of the city’s Taksim Square after security forces abandoned the district Saturday following 36 hours of vicious clashes and angry demonstrations against the government.
Demonstrators erected makeshift barricades at the entrance to the square, which holds huge symbolic importance for Turkey’s leftist political parties and labor movement.
There were reports of confrontations in at least one other neighborhood in Istanbul and in cities such as Ankara and Adana, where a man told CNN the situation was bad. Police fired tear gas in Ankara to disperse demonstrators.
“There is civil police arresting people all over the place,” Cenker Kardesler said by phone. “The police tried to corner the people. They came at us from both sides.”
In Taksim Square, tensions remained high between protesters and police, but the scene was calmer than it had been in recent days. Many people helped municipal workers in their cleanup efforts.
But on Friday and Saturday, this bustling neighborhood was a battleground as riot police used water cannons, tear gas, pepper spray and armored personnel carriers to prevent protesters from entering this transit and commercial hub at the heart of the city.
Saturday afternoon, police withdrew after firing several last volleys of tear gas at crowds, sending thousands of screaming people fleeing for cover.
Police used similar tactics in the Istanbul neighborhood of Besiktas early Sunday, a resident said. A woman who was on her way to buy groceries told CNN she saw police using tear gas and people fleeing in terror.
Turkey’s semi-official news agency reported that more than 700 people have been detained since Tuesday, and most have been released. Andalou News Agency said 58 civilians are still hospitalized and 115 security officers have been injured.
There have been protests in 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces over the past four days, Andalou reported.
What began as a small sit-in to protest against the government’s plan to demolish a park in Taksim Square has swelled to the biggest protest movement against Turkey’s prime minister since Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected more than 10 years ago. The crowds have been chanting “Tayyip resign” and “shoulder to shoulder against fascism.”
In a televised speech on Sunday, Erdogan remained defiant.
“I ask in the name of God, Tayyip Erdogan is a dictator? If you are the kind of person who can call someone who serves their people a dictator, then I have no words for you,” Erdogan said.
He went on to praise his accomplishments overseeing a decade of unprecedented economic growth in Turkey. He also defended his record as a leader who has planted many trees.
“They are putting on airs saying we massacre trees,” he said. “We have planted approximately 2 billion trees.”
But many of the demonstrators say their anger is no longer directed against the proposed government plan to demolish Gezi Park, the last green space in central Istanbul.
“This park was just the ignition of all that,” said Yakup Efe Tuncay, a 28-year-old demonstrator who carried a Turkish flag while walking through the park Saturday. “The Erdogan government is usually considered as authoritarian. He has a big ego; he has this Napoleon syndrome. He takes himself as a sultan. … He needs to stop doing that. He’s just a prime minister.”
The scope of the protests shows there is a bigger issue, about freedom of speech and accusations of authoritative government.
“People are entitled to disagreement with the government; they can exercise their democratic rights, but they can do so within the context of a democratic society,” Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said Saturday.
International human rights groups Amnesty International and Greenpeace have denounced what they describe as the excessive use of police force against peaceful protesters.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement that said Ashton “regrets disproportionate use of force by members of the Turkish police.” Ashton also called for talks between the two sides.
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh contributed to this report.