Turkey's Erdogan to meet protesters' representatives to defuse row

  • World
  • Friday, 14 Jun 2013

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will meet on Thursday with members of a group opposed to the redevelopment of an Istanbul park in a bid to end two weeks of anti-government protests, just hours after Erdogan said his patience had run out.

Earlier in the day, Erdogan gave a final warning for those occupying the central Istanbul Gezi Park to leave and struck back at criticism from the European Parliament over the ferocity of a police crackdown on the protesters.

"Our patience is at an end. I am making my warning for the last time. I say to the mothers and fathers please take your children in hand and bring them out ... Gezi Park does not belong to occupying forces but to the people," he said.

A heavy-handed police crackdown on the park nearly two weeks ago triggered an unprecedented wave of protest against Erdogan and his AK Party - an association of centrists and conservative religious elements - drawing in secularists, nationalists, professionals, unionists and students.

Erdogan has already discussed the plans to build over the park with various people who support the protesters, but until Thursday had refused to meet with the Taksim Solidarity group at the heart of the campaign to protect the park.

"Upon the prime minister's invitation, members of the Taksim Solidarity will discuss with him our view that Gezi Park should remain a park," Eyup Muhcu, head of the Chamber of Architects, told Reuters.

Musicians and actors were also in the delegation to meet Erdogan in Ankara around 11 pm (9:00 p.m. British time), media reports said.

Erdogan, who has accused foreign forces, international media and market speculators of stoking the unrest and trying to undermine the Turkish economy, said he would "share with the nation" at another AKP meeting on Friday details of what he termed a "game being played with Turkey".

"It is as if the whole of Turkey is on fire, as if the whole of Turkey is collapsing," he said of some media coverage, describing it as "deceptive and unethical".

Riot police looked on from the fringes of Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests, overnight as crowds mingled, some chanting and dancing, others applauding a concert pianist who took up residence with a grand piano on the square.

It was a contrast to the scene 24 hours earlier, when teargas sent thousands scurrying into side streets before authorities bulldozed barricades and reopened the square to traffic for the first time since the troubles began.

Police fired teargas and water cannon day after day in cities including Ankara last week while youths threw stones and petrol bombs. Three people, one a policeman, died and about 5,000 thousand people were injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.


Erdogan met a group of academics, artists and students who support the Gezi Park protests on Wednesday and AK Party deputy chairman Huseyin Celik said they had discussed the possibility of a referendum on the plans to build on the park.

The offer is one of the only concessions the authorities have publicly floated after days of firm rhetoric from Erdogan refusing to back down. Celik gave few details of how a referendum would be carried out, saying it could either be held across Istanbul, or just in the district near Taksim.

The protesters in the park, camped out in a ramshackle settlement of tents, were sceptical.

"The people the prime minister spoke to he chose. He said they will be the ones representing us. But they don't represent us. They have nothing to do with what we think," said Aylin Kaplan, 24, a student who has been in the park from the start.

"From the beginning we have said we have specific requests, we have been clear and open. We do not need a referendum," she said, repeating the main demand that the government abandon plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks on the park.

President Abdullah Gul, who has struck a more conciliatory tone than Erdogan, said he had also privately met with some protesters. He has said the government should engage its critics, but appeared to close ranks with the prime minister on Wednesday, saying violent protests were a different matter.

"Yesterday's meeting was important. I have also met with those who are protesting ... I have had meetings without telling the press," he said. "It is very important to listen first. A middle way has to be found."


Erdogan's tough talk has endeared him to voters for the past decade, but his opponents say he has now poured fuel on the flames. On Tuesday he said he would not kneel before the protesters and that "this Tayyip Erdogan won't change".

The United States, which has held up Erdogan's Turkey in the past as an example of Muslim democracy that could benefit other countries in the Middle East, expressed concern about events and urged dialogue between government and protesters.

The European Parliament on Thursday warned the government against the use of "harsh measures" against peaceful protestors and urged Erdogan to take a "unifying and conciliatory" stance.

In a resolution adopted in Strasbourg, the European Parliament expressed its deep concern "at the disproportionate and excessive use of force by Turkish police to break up peaceful and legitimate protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park."

The lawmakers also said they believed that the wave of protests reflected the growing discontent that minority voices lack representation.

Erdogan argues that the broader mass of people have been manipulated by extremists and terrorists and says his political authority derives from his popular mandate in three successive election victories.

Turkey has been locked in protracted negotiations over EU membership since 2005 and Erdogan slammed the resolution.

"How can you take this kind of a decision about Turkey which isn't even an EU member but a candidate," he said.

"You should know your place."

(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Daren Butler in Istanbul, Humeyra Pamuk in Ankara, Nick Vinocur in Paris; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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