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Heavy with history, Turkey's May Day protests turn fierce

ISTANBUL — All over the world May 1 is synonymous with International Workers’ Day, a chance to celebrate the economic achievements of the labor movement, or more often than not, to protest big business and capitalism.

For Turkey, however, May Day is heavy with history.

Hundreds of union workers marched through Istanbul’s Taksim Square today, a demonstration considered by the unions to be a symbolic victory after being banned from holding May Day rallies there since a 1977 gathering where an unidentified gunmen opened fire on the crowd, leaving 36 people dead and 200 injured.

Some unionists climbed on to a monument in the square, waving flags and chanting: "Long live May 1!" Others sang and danced.

Turkey declared May Day a public holiday last week, bowing to pressure from the unions. But the government said only small groups of unionists could pass through police barricades and enter Taksim Square, citing security concerns.

Riot police used teargas and water cannons to drive back hundreds who had gathered in surrounding neighborhoods to march in defiance of a ban on large-scale festivities in Taksim Square. Dozens of people were injured in the skirmishes and police detained at least 20 people, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

Police also clashed with protesters in a number of other neighborhoods of Istanbul, which was virtually shut down. Most of its main roads were blocked, and its subway and tram services shut.

Almost one in three young people in Turkey is unemployed and the government fears social unrest and increased ethnic tension because of the downturn. Labor unions, traditionally weak, have become increasingly vocal.

Despite the clashes on the fringes, today's march was more orderly than last year's, which turned violent when workers tried to defy the government ban on festivities.

Labor Day had stopped being a public holiday in Turkey following a 1980 military coup, whose leaders regarded the festivities as an opportunity for leftist activism.