ANKARA (Reuter)–Police using batons–dogs and water cannon broke up a protest by thousands of Islamists marching through Turkey’s capital Tuesday to challenge Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz’s effort to curtail religious education.
Witnesses said police repeatedly charged demonstrators outside the education ministry after hours of rowdy protests. Armored cars fired water–colored with purple dye–from cannon at the crowd.
Anatolian news agency said eleven people–including five members of the media who were badly beaten by police–were taken to hospital. Witnesses said several injured television cameramen were led to ambulances with blood pouring from their heads.
Dozens of police in full riot gear–some with dogs–charged a group of about 1,000 protesters marching toward Yilmaz’s office chanting: "Government–resign!"
One dog ripped a trouser leg off a journalist and several protesters suffered minor injuries. Other reporters were hit by stones thrown by protesters.
About 6,000 people–many wearing Islamic-style skullcaps and waving Turkish flags–demonstrated in the city center.
"Break the hands of those who try to lay a finger on the Koran," they shouted–referring to the Moslem holy book.
The chanting could be heard inside the headquarters of Turkey’s secularist military where the top brass were briefing key members of the cabinet on Islamist revivalism and the fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
"Information was given…about fundamentalism and the activities of the separatist terrorist organization," state-run Anatolian new agency quoted an army statement as saying.
The secularist army fears Islamist activism is on the rise. Around 55 people were arrested near the military building–Anatolian said. The march ended after many of the protesters attended afternoon prayers at the 13th-century Haci Bayram mosque–frequented by Islamists.
Police prevented the demonstrators from marching on parliament to protest at a government bid to extend compulsory secularist education to eight years from the current five–in a bill that would effectively close many religious schools.
Secularist education reform was a key demand by the army in a campaign dating back to February that helped topple the previous government of Necmettin Erbakan last month.
Yilmaz was quoted in the press on Tuesday as saying he would push the reform through parliament by the end of next week despite opposition from at least 10 pro-Islamist members of parliament in his Motherland Party (ANAP).
"We will work like soldiers for the next two weeks. There will be some dissent in ANAP but this bill will pass," the Hurriyet daily quoted the prime minister as saying.
Conservative Yilmaz rules in coalition with anti-Islamist leftists and a right-wing splinter group.
The bill foresees halving up to three years the amount of time a child can study at Moslem religious schools–known as Imam Hatips. Faced with declining enrollment–many of the 560 schools are expected to close down.
The government has also said it will crack down on Islamic charities it suspects of serving as fronts for groups aiming to set up the rule of Islamic law in NATO-member Turkey.
"Their only goal is to see who can close the most Imam Hatips–Koranic courses and charities," Erbakan–now the main opposition leader–told his Welfare Party parliamentarians.
Welfare deputies invited a small delegation of protesters into parliament to hear Erbakan–who became Turkey’s first Islamist leader last year in alliance with conservatives.
In the street–a group of women demonstrators–their heads cloaked and separated from the men in line with strict Islamic practice – also took part in the march.