Turkey PM offers referendum, warning

2013-06-13 18:55
Cars and pedestrian use the Taksim Square as a few protesters gather at a barricade in Istanbul on Thursday. (Thanassis Stavrakis, AP)

Cars and pedestrian use the Taksim Square as a few protesters gather at a barricade in Istanbul on Thursday. (Thanassis Stavrakis, AP)

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Istanbul - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a "last warning" on Thursday for thousands of protesters to evacuate an Istanbul park at the centre of mass anti-government demos, ratcheting up tensions in two weeks of deadly unrest.

A day after meeting with protest leaders and offering to hold a referendum on plans to redevelop Gezi Park, Erdogan resumed his combative stance on the environmental protest that has snowballed into the biggest challenge to his Islamic-rooted government's decade-long rule.

"I'm making my last warning: mothers, fathers please withdraw your kids from there," Erdogan said in a live television broadcast. "Gezi Park does not belong to occupying forces. It belongs to everybody."

Demonstrators have been camping out in the park since 31 May, when police brutally responded to a campaign to save the site's 600 trees from being razed.

The crackdown sparked an outpouring of anger across the country against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.

Erdogan raised the stakes on Tuesday, when riot police stormed Istanbul's Taksim Square, the focal point of the protests. They fired tear gas and jets of water at tens of thousands of demonstrators, some of whom hurled back fireworks and Molotov cocktails.

But in a first concession on Wednesday, he offered to hold a popular vote on plans to build a replica of Ottoman-era military barracks in Gezi Park, which border Taksim Square, if demonstrators pulled out of the green patch.

But protesters in the park, many still reeling from Tuesday's violence that sent clouds of acrid tear gas into their tents, have responded coolly to the olive branch.

"We don't trust the government... We will stay in the park. It's not just about the trees," said interior designer Uzay, 25, accusing Erdogan of polarising the country and curbing personal freedoms.

The premier, who has branded the protesters "extremists" and "looters", has faced condemnation from the United States and other Western allies over his handling of the crisis.

Four people have been killed and nearly 5,000 demonstrators, many of whom are young and middle-class, have been injured in the unrest.

Members of the European parliament on Wednesday joined the chorus of criticism, condemning "the harsh measures against the peaceful protesters" in Turkey, a long-time EU hopeful.

"The police crackdown undermines the credibility of Turkey's regional role as a champion of democratic change," the Euro MPs said.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the resolution "unacceptable. "Turkey does not need to learn any lessons from any country," he told reporters in Ankara.

Erdogan also rejected the resolution. "I do not recognise any decision made by the EU Parliament," he said. "Turkey is not an EU member."

NATO member Turkey has long sought to join the 27-member EU bloc but efforts have stalled in recent years, with concerns over the country's human rights record a key stumbling block.

-- 'Tayyip must apologise' --

Overnight, police again fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse some 2,000 demonstrators in the capital Ankara.

The mood was more subdued in Taksim, where demonstrators gathered peacefully around a piano for a live concert, sporadically chanting: "Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!" as riot police looked on.

By Thursday afternoon, there was a much smaller police presence on the square and traffic was flowing freely, with no sign of fresh protests.

President Abdullah Gul, who has adopted a more conciliatory tone on the demonstrations than Erdogan, said the referendum proposal showed Turkey's democratic "maturity".

"It is very pleasing that a debate like this evolved in this direction," he told reporters.

But inside Gezi Park, protesters were wary and bracing for trouble.

"We don't agree (with the referendum)," said 29-year-old Iskender Sisman, sitting outside a tent. "Tayyip must apologise for everything, for the park, for the tear gas."

Opponents accuse Erdogan of repressing critics -- including journalists, minority Kurds and the military -- and of pushing conservative Islamic values on the constitutionally secular nation

Opposition to Erdogan is intense but the 59-year-old, in power since 2002, remains the country's most popular politician. His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth in the predominantly Muslim country of 76 million people.

Erdogan has urged loyalists to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.

Read more on:    recep tayyip erdogan  |  turkey

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