ISTANBUL: Turkish protesters occupying an Istanbul park held talks to discuss their next move after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to suspend the site’s controversial redevelopment in a bid to end two weeks of deadly anti-government unrest.
But Erdogan’s appeal to evacuate Gezi Park “by tonight” looked set to fall on deaf ears as protesters’ talks continued late into Friday evening and thousands again rolled out their sleeping bags.
The premier’s concession to halt the park project until a court ruled on its legality 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.
“Young people, you have remained there long enough and delivered your message…. Why are you staying?” Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on live television.
“I hope it will be over by tonight,” he added.
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 and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), 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.
Erdogan has taken a combative stance against the demonstrators, dismissing them as “looters” and “extremists”.
But after they defied his “last warning” to clear out of the park on Thursday, he held emergency talks with an umbrella group called Taksim Solidarity, seen as most representative of the protesters.
In what was hailed as a win by the representatives, the meeting led to Erdogan’s first major concession since the conflict began.
Erdogan 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.
Taksim Solidarity responded more coolly to the referendum idea but vowed to take the premier’s proposals to Gezi Park, where protesters held discussion forums into the night to come up with a joint response.
Early indications suggested that many of the campers, most of whom are young and middle-class, were determined to stay in the park despite the government’s olive branch, claiming that the protest had morphed into something bigger.
“We won’t go, why would we when we have come this far?” said 43-year-old Mustafa, recalling the thousands of people injured in clashes with riot police. “There’s no going back… It’s not just about the trees.”
Kivanch K., a pianist who has been entertaining demonstrators with live concerts, said he was “not satisfied” with Erdogan’s gesture.
“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 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 urged supporters to answer the demonstrators by voting for the AKP in next year’s local polls.
The first election rallies are scheduled for this weekend in the capital Ankara and Istanbul and are expected to bring tens of thousands of loyalists into the streets.
Britain’s BBC meanwhile announced it had suspended ties with Turkey’s private station NTV after it pulled a BBC programme that covered the initial failure of mainstream Turkish media to cover the protests.
Turkey’s protesters have already criticised the country’s mainstream media for failing to properly cover the story.