Turkish protesters refuse to leave İstanbul park despite PM pledge

Turkish protesters refuse to leave İstanbul park despite PM pledge

Protesters, who oppose a government plan to redevelop Taksim Gezi Park, have been camping in the park for more than two weeks. (Photo: Cihan, Ali Cansev)

June 15, 2013, Saturday/ 11:15:00/ REUTERS

Turkish protesters said on Saturday they would not leave an İstanbul park despite a call from the president for them to withdraw and a pledge from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to hold a vote on plans to redevelop the site.

Hundreds of protesters, camped out for more than two weeks in tents in Gezi Park adjoining İstanbul's central Taksim Square, said they would keep up their campaign after the government failed to meet demands including the release of detained demonstrators.

A police crackdown on peaceful campaigners in the park two weeks ago provoked an unprecedented wave of protest against Erdoğan and his AK Party -- an association of centrists and conservative religious elements -- drawing in secularists, nationalists, professionals, trade unionists and students.

The unrest, in which police fired teargas and water cannon at stone-throwing protesters night after night in cities including İstanbul and Ankara, left four people dead and about 5,000 injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

"The government has ignored clear and rightful demands since the beginning of the resistance. They tried to divide, provoke and damage our legitimacy," the Taksim Solidarity platform, an umbrella group for the protesters, said in a statement.

The group, whose representatives met Erdoğan at his official residence in Ankara on Thursday night, said it had seen no serious signs of progress in holding those responsible for the police crackdown to account, nor in investigating the four deaths, one of them a policeman, during the unrest.

"We continue to guard the park," said Mücella Yapıcı, a spokeswoman for the group, when asked if the protesters were considering withdrawing.

Erdoğan told protesters at Thursday's talks he would put plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks in Gezi Park on hold until a court rules on them, a more moderate stance after two weeks of defiance in which he when he called the protesters as "riff-raff" and said the plans would go ahead regardless.

"The fact that negotiation and dialogue channels are open is a sign of democratic maturity," President Abdullah Gül, who has struck a more conciliatory tone than Erdoğan throughout the protests, said on his Twitter account on Saturday.

"I believe this process will have good results. From now on everybody should return home," he said.

What began as a campaign by environmentalists to save what they say is one of central İstanbul's few green spaces spiralled into the most serious show of defiance against Erdoğan and his AK Party of his decade in power.

The ruling party plans rallies in Ankara later on Saturday and in İstanbul on Sunday. Erdoğan said on Friday they mark the start of campaigning for local elections next year and are not to do with the Gezi Park protest, but they are widely seen as a show of strength in the face of the demonstrations.

Erdoğan has long been the country's most popular politician, his AK Party winning three successive election victories each time with a larger share of the vote, but his critics complain of increasing authoritarianism.


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