ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to meet with protest leaders whose mass anti-government demonstrations have rocked the country, in his first major concession since the deadly unrest began nearly two weeks ago.
The surprise olive branch came as thousands again took to the streets of Istanbul and the capital Ankara, defying Erdogan’s threat that they would “pay a price” for the unrelenting unrest, the biggest challenge yet to his Islamic-rooted government’s decade-long rule.
Riot police fired tear gas in the centre of Ankara on Monday night to disperse hundreds of protesters on the 11th day of mass demonstrations against Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government.
“Our prime minister has given an appointment to some of the groups leading these protests,” said deputy premier Bulent Arinc, adding that the talks would take place Wednesday.
“They will be briefed on the facts and our prime minister will listen to their thoughts,” he told reporters in Ankara after a six-hour cabinet meeting on the crisis.
Despite the conciliatory gesture, he warned: “Illegal demonstrations will not be allowed anymore in Turkey.”
The unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on a campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park from demolition on May 31.
The trouble spiralled into nationwide displays of anger against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Nearly 5,000 demonstrators, scores of whom are young and middle-class, have been injured and three people have died, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
After a weekend of record crowds of tens of thousands in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicentre of the unrest, protesters packed the music-filled, flag-festooned area and nearby Gezi Park for an 11th night late on Monday.
“We will come here every day after work until he goes,” said marketing manager Can, 30, who only wanted to give one name.
“They keep trying to change the way we can live our lives… Everything is becoming more religious, not more democratic,” he said, criticising Erdogan for calling opponents of his proposed ban on late-night alcohol sales “drunks”.
In the capital Ankara, police poured into the affluent Tunali Hilmi street which until now had largely been spared from the riots.
Restaurant owners were forced to shut themselves in with their clients.
Turkey’s combative leader has so far responded with defiance to the protesters. On Sunday, he inflamed tensions by staging his own rallies, firing up AKP supporter with combative rhetoric.
“Those who do not respect this nation’s party in power will pay a price,” he told thousands of cheering party faithful in Ankara, as just a few kilometres (miles) away riot police doused thousands with tear gas and water.
Opponents accuse Erdogan of repressing critics — including journalists, minority Kurds and the military — and of pushing conservative Islamic values on the mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation.
But the 59-year-old is also considered the most influential leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, and remains the country’s favourite politician.
His AKP has won three elections in a row and took nearly half the vote in the 2011 elections, having presided over strong economic growth.
Secure in his popularity, the premier urged loyalists on Sunday to respond to the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in local polls next year.
“I want you to teach them a first lesson through democratic means at the ballot box,” he said.
Turkey will see both local and presidential elections in 2014. The AKP plans to launch its first campaign rallies in Ankara and Istanbul next weekend, expected to bring tens of thousands into the streets.
A general election is scheduled for 2015, and officials have ruled out any suggestion of calling early polls in view of the crisis.
The national doctors’ union says the unrest has left two protesters and a policeman dead so far while almost 4,800 people have been injured.
Erdogan said Sunday that over 600 police officers have been hurt.
The leader has faced international condemnation for his handling of the crisis in Turkey, a country of 76 million at the crossroads of East and West and a key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies.