Hundreds of police clad in riot gear pushed easily past barricades in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square early on Tuesday, and many of the protesters who had occupied the square for more than a week were pushed into a nearby park.
Police briefly fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, prompting many of the protesters to flee the square into Gezi Park, where many had been camping.
Earlier, demonstrators had manned the barricades and prepared for a possible intervention when officers began massing in the area.
Police began taking down banners that had been hung by protesters on a large building on the edge of the square, replacing them with a large Turkish flag and a banner with the picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular republic.
As police clashed with some activists, bulldozers and garbage trucks began cleaning up some of the barricades on the square. A group of protesters were seen at another corner of the square, apparently trying to negotiate with police.
Huseyin Avni Mutlu, the governor of Istanbul, said on Twitter the police operation was to remove the banners hung on the building and on a monument on the square. He said the people occupying the park would not be touched.
A statement from Mutlu’s office said the banners of various groups taking part in the protests were making the square look as though it was under “occupation” and was “negatively affecting our country’s image in the eyes of the world opinion and leading to reaction from within the society”.
Before the police action, the protests appeared to be diminishing, with the smallest number of demonstrators in the past 12 days gathering in Taksim on Monday night. The protesters occupying Gezi Park had remained, however.
Turkey’s most widespread anti-government protests in decades erupted on May 31 after a police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by protesters objecting to a project replacing the park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks.
Smaller protests also occurred in Ankara, where about 5,000 people demonstrated. Police there have used water cannon and tear gas to break up demonstrations almost every night.
Three people have died and more than 5,000 have been treated for injuries or the effects of gas during the protests. The government says 600 police officers have also been injured.
The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had said he would meet the Gezi Park protesters on Wednesday, following a request by some of them.