ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday appealed to protesters to evacuate an Istanbul park “by tonight”, after promising to suspend the site’s redevelopment in a bid to end two weeks of deadly anti-government unrest.
A day after giving a “last warning” to thousands of defiant demonstrators camping out in Gezi Park, Erdogan adopted a softer tone, telling protesters their message had been received.
His concession to halt the park project marked the first easing of tensions in the standoff, which has presented the Islamic-rooted government with the biggest challenge of its decade-long rule and earned it criticism from the West.
“I hope it will be over by tonight,” Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on live television.
“Young people, you have remained there long enough and delivered your message…. Why are you staying?”
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 outpourings of anger against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.
After talks with an umbrella group of protesters called Taksim Solidarity, Erdogan agreed to suspend the project while waiting for a court ruling on its legality.
If the redevelopment is deemed legal, he wants to offer a referendum on the redevelopment plans.
Taksim Solidarity, seen as the group most representative of the protesters, said it welcomed the premier’s gesture and would meet with demonstrators occupying the park on Friday evening to discuss the next move.
“The positive outcome from tonight is the prime minister’s explanation that the project will not continue before the final court decision,” said Tayfun Kahraman, a spokesman for Taksim Solidary.
The group has responded more coolly to Erdogan’s other proposal to hold a referendum on the proposed reconstruction of Ottoman-era military barracks in Gezi Park.
“We did not suffer through the attacks… so that a referendum could take place,” they said in a statement on Thursday.
According to the Turkish Medical Association (TBB), nearly 7,500 people have been injured and four killed in the nationwide unrest, which has seen police use tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators who have hurled back fireworks and Molotov cocktails.
The same group said Friday that Turkey’s health ministry had opened an inquiry into the volunteers who have provided first aid in makeshift clinics to protesters injured in the clashes.
The body was told to “immediately” give up the names of the medical workers and their patients, said TBB spokesman Osman Ozturk, who vowed not to give up “a single name”.
There was no immediate reaction from the government.
Inside Gezi Park, many campers, most of whom are young and middle-class, said they were determined to stay despite the government’s olive branch to suspend the redevelopment project, stressing that the protest had morphed into something bigger.
“We’re not satisfied and this is not about this park only,” said Kivanch K., a pianist who has in recent days been entertaining demonstrators in nearby Taksim Square, a much quieter protest site after a heavy police intervention earlier this week.
“Of course it started as an environmentalist protest, but this is about much more than a park. It’s about a nation’s identity,” the 39-year-old told AFP.
Opponents accuse Erdogan of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation, and of pushing big urban development projects at the expense of local residents.
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.
The United States and other Western allies have widely condemned Erdogan’s handling of the crisis, which has undermined Turkey’s image as model of Islamic democracy.
Despite the criticism, Germany said Friday that Turkey’s crackdown on protesters had no direct bearing on Ankara’s aspiration to join the European Union.
“There is no direct link between the events in Turkey and the technical process of accession negotiations of the country to the EU,” foreign ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said.
NATO member Turkey has long sought to join the 27-member EU, but efforts have stalled in recent years, in particular over the country’s human rights record.
Watchdogs say Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 49 reporters behind bars as of December 2012. Erdogan also stands accused of using the courts to silence political critics, with dozens of lawyers and lawmakers also in detention accused of plotting against the government.