- Associated Press - Monday, October 29, 2012

ANKARA, Turkey — Police used tear gas and water cannons against a demonstration by tens of thousands of pro-secular protesters, but Monday’s march to mark the founding of the Turkish republic went on in defiance of a government ban.

The Republic Day celebrations have in the past few years become a symbol of the divide between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s elected, Islamic-leaning government and its opponents who fear the country’s secular traditions are in danger.

The Ankara governor’s office last week denied authorization for the march, citing security reasons, and declared the gathering illegal.

Challenging the ban, tens of thousands of people assembled in the old part of Ankara, near the building housing Turkey’s first parliament, to march to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular republic 89 years ago after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Government officials, meanwhile, marked the day with an official celebration and parade at a hippodrome just over a mile away.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters who tried to break through police lines, before a barricade was lifted and the demonstrators proceeded to march, waving Turkish flags and carrying posters of Ataturk.

They chanted: “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal!” and “Turkey is secular and will remain secular!” and dispersed peacefully after reaching the mausoleum.

There was no report of any arrest or injury.

There were conflicting reports however, about whether the demonstrators had broken past the barricades or the government had ordered the barricades to be lifted.

The march was supported by the main opposition party, whose leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, briefly took refuge in a nearby military guest house to escape the tear gas.

Under Mr. Erdogan’s leadership over the past decade, Turkey has boosted economic growth, raised its international profile and reduced the power of the military which had staged three coups since the 1960s.

But serious concerns remain about public rights and freedoms in the country.

Hundreds of people, including politicians, academics and military officers, have been jailed, accused of plotting to overthrow the government, in trials that have been marred by judicial irregularities and lengthy detention periods.

Last week, the media advocacy group, Committee to Protect Journalists, accused Turkey of waging the “world’s biggest crackdown” on media freedoms and said at least 61 journalists are in prison for their published work or newsgathering activities.

On Monday, the media and opposition politicians said police had prevented several buses carrying demonstrators from traveling to Ankara to take part in the march.

The Republic Day celebrations have long been a source of tension in the country.

Until two years ago, military leaders and other secularists shunned Republic Day receptions at the presidential palace to protest of the president’s wife who wears an Islamic-style headscarf.

That forced President Abdullah Gul to hold two separate receptions: a midday one attended by military officers and other VIPs without their wives, and one in the evening during which women in headscarves were commonly seen.

The opposition to Islamic headscarves has since eased off, and Mr. Gul now hosts a single reception.