Turkey protesters 'to stay in park' despite PM concession

Turkish protesters on Saturday refused to budge from an Istanbul park at the centre of nationwide anti-government demonstrations after rejecting a government olive branch aimed at ending two weeks of deadly unrest.

A woman anti-govement woman protestor stands on the barricade at Gezi Park near Taksim Square on June 14, 2013 in Istanbul. Turkish protesters hunkered down in an Istanbul park Saturday, rejecting an olive branch the government had hoped would end two weeks of nationwide civil unrest.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's offer to halt the redevelopment of Gezi Park that first ignited the mass protests was presented as a major concession but after conferring all night the protesters said their movement was bigger than a conservation struggle.

"We will continue our resistance in the face of any injustice and unfairness taking place in our country," the Taksim Solidarity group, seen as most representative of the protesters, said in a statement. "This is only the beginning."

The decision looked set to inflame tensions in a crisis that has posed the biggest challenge yet to the decade-long rule of Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government.

In the capital Ankara, meanwhile, riot police again fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators overnight. Around 30 protesters were arrested.

Tens of thousands of supporters of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were expected to take to the streets of the capital later on Saturday for an election rally billed as a show of strength for the premier.

A peaceful sit-in to save Gezi Park's 600 trees from being razed prompted a brutal police response on May 31, spiralling into nationwide demonstrations against Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.

Nearly 7,500 people have been injured and four killed in the mass unrest, which has seen police use tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets against demonstrators who have hurled back fireworks and Molotov cocktails.

The United States and other Western allies have widely condemned Erdogan's handling of the crisis, undermining Turkey's image as model of Islamic democracy.

After days of taking a combative stance against the demonstrators, dismissing them as "looters" and "extremists", Erdogan on Friday held his first talks with an umbrella group called Taksim Solidarity, seen as most representative of the protesters.

He agreed to abide by a court-ordered suspension of the park project -- a move welcomed by the protesters. He also said that if the court rules the Gezi Park redevelopment is legal, he wants to hold a popular vote on plans to build a replica of Ottoman-era military barracks on the site.

"Young people, you have remained there long enough and delivered your message.... Why are you staying?" Erdogan said afterwards in a speech broadcast on live television.

"Don't force us to use other methods."

But in an official response Saturday, Taksim Solidarity said the government had failed to address their demands, including a call for arrested demonstrators to be released and for police chiefs in cities that saw violent clashes to be sacked.

Buoyed by the dialogue with Erdogan, the group said the protesters, many of whom are young and middle-class, were "stronger" than ever.

"The party in power has lost its legitimacy before the eyes of local and international media."

"We will stay because our demands have not been satisfied by the government," Gezi Park protester Ata told AFP, adding that the protests had given him renewed confidence in his country.

"I'm very hopeful now for the future of this country and also for my own future. Nothing will be the same in Turkey," the 32-year-old doctorate student said.

The country's main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, voiced support for the campers' decision to stay put, saying their movement was "the outburst of a repressed society".

"We are pushing for more democracy and freedom," he said.

Opponents have accused Erdogan of repressing critics and of forcing conservative Islamic policies on the mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation -- including religious education reforms and restrictions on alcohol sales.

While opposition to the premier is intense, the 59-year-old has been in power since 2002 and 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 country of 76 million people.

Erdogan has repeatedly urged supporters to answer the protesters by voting for his AKP next year, when local and presidential polls will be held. A general election is scheduled for 2015.

The first election rallies will take place this weekend in Ankara and Istanbul. While Erdogan has stressed they are not meant as a showdown, the party faithful will be gathering under the slogan: "Respect the national will".

About the author

columnist
Writer: AFP
Position: News agency