ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a “last warning” 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 May 31, when police brutally responded to a campaign to save the site’s 600 trees from being chopped.
The crackdown sparked an outpouring of anger across the country against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.
In some of the biggest clashes yet, riot police on Tuesday 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.
Other cities across Turkey have seen similar clashes, with police in the capital Ankara dispersing some 2,000 demonstrators with gas and water cannon overnight.
After labelling the protesters “vandals” and “extremists”, Erdogan on Wednesday made his first concession by suggesting a popular vote on plans to build a replica of Ottoman-era military barracks in Gezi Park, which borders 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 smoke 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 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 across the country, undermining Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
— ‘Call me, have a good day’ —
The European parliament on Thursday joined the chorus of criticism, passing a resolution warning the government against taking “harsh measures against the peaceful protesters” in Turkey, a long-time EU hopeful.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the resolution “unacceptable”.
Erdogan also rejected the move. “I do not recognise any decision made by the EU Parliament,” he said. “Who do you think you are?”
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.
As evening fell, small groups of riot police were still dotted around Istanbul’s Taksim Square area, where traffic was once again flowing freely, but there were no signs of fresh protests.
Protesters in Gezi Park, however, were wary of a police operation to break up their tent city.
Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu, who has said any police action would only be aimed at troublemakers, took to Twitter to reassure the campers there would be no intervention without advance warning, and gave out his personal phone number to discuss their concerns.
“‘The young people who are motivated by a sensitivity for the environment,’ you can call me for a personal chat… Have a good day,” he wrote. His mobile phone number was retweeted 7,500 times within two hours.
While opposition to Erdogan is intense, 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.
Opponents accuse Erdogan of repressing critics — including journalists, minority Kurds and the military — and of pushing conservative Islamic values on the constitutionally secular nation.