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Turkey's leader agrees to halt park project

After meeting with protesters, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he'll freeze a development project in popular Gezi Park in Istanbul, let a referendum decide.

June 13, 2013|By Glen Johnson and Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Protesters stand on a barricade at the entrance to Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey. The demonstration against a development project there has grown into a wider protest against the prime minister's increasingly authoritarian rule
Protesters stand on a barricade at the entrance to Gezi Park in Istanbul,… (Sedat Suna, European Pressphoto…)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Besieged Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed Friday to freeze construction in a popular Istanbul park after an emergency meeting with antigovernment protesters in Ankara, easing fear of further violence after two weeks of widespread chaos and bloodshed.

The meeting, which lasted more than three hours, appeared to be a last-minute effort by the prime minister to avert a police crackdown to remove thousands of demonstrators from Gezi Park who opposed the development plan. The meeting included members of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, a leading dissident group that was not invited to a similar meeting the previous day.

Speaking after Friday's meeting, government spokesman Huseyin Celik said a court order against the proposed development in the park would remain in place.

"Nothing will be done until the end of the judicial process," Celik said. Then "there will be a referendum among the people of Istanbul ... to see what the people of Istanbul want."

Celik said results of that poll would "be applied directly."

Hours earlier, Erdogan said at a gathering of his Justice and Development Party in Ankara, the capital, that the era of showdown on the streets was over in Turkey.

"We cannot allow lawbreakers to hang around freely in this square. We will clean the square," Erdogan reportedly said Thursday. "The era of extorting the nation's will on streets is over. The era of suppressing, terrifying and scaring the people is over."

Erdogan had given protesters one day to end their 2-week-old occupation of the park in central Istanbul, an ultimatum that rights groups said added fuel to a crisis that had given rise to "appalling levels of violence."

The protesters have put Istanbul in the international spotlight after their demonstration against the park development grew into a rally against Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule.

The prime minister's political party had suggested that he was open to the possibility of holding a referendum on the park's future. It was his biggest concession yet, but it came as hundreds of police officers, brought into the area aboard dozens of buses, gathered at dusk Thursday around Taksim Square and the adjacent park, causing concern that another crackdown was imminent.

Police stormed the square Tuesday, entering Gezi Park three times.

On Thursday, bulldozers cleared protesters' barricades on side streets adjacent to the park. Demonstrators looked on, while teams of workers spray-painted over the antigovernment political graffiti covering walls. A police helicopter circled the area through much of Thursday afternoon.

"Today or tomorrow they will come," said Gusel, a recent graduate of an Istanbul university who sat in the park. "I have seen how the police act. We are all scared."

Gusel, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisal, worried that tear gas canisters would come through the sycamore trees stretching skyward above him and that police would use plastic bullets and stun grenades to control the crowd. He worried about how to get out of the park, now holding several thousand people, if tear gas blanketed the area.

Another protester, Tugce, who also asked that her full name not be used, pulled a slingshot from her bag and said that she and her friends — radical leftists — had Molotov cocktails ready. She said it was the police who should be afraid.

"I'm not afraid of the police, even though they have all kinds of weapons," she said. "This is a fascist government which kills protesters. We will fight for our rights."

The government has emphasized the role of radicals in the demonstrations and suggested that foreign hands are seeking to create instability in the country. Erdogan, who has won three consecutive elections and retains considerable support, has dismissed many of the protesters as hooligans and militants.

But the Gezi Park movement is largely driven by a secular, nationalist strand of nonviolent youth, previously alienated from Turkish political life.

"Erdogan's approach has inflated the radical groups' view of themselves while radicalizing the mainstream groups," said Hugh Pope, head of the International Crisis Group's Turkish wing. "The way to start dealing with the crisis is to engage with the mainstream opposition."

Erdogan, who rose through the Islamic underground to become the most powerful man in Turkey, had appeared determined to stay the course, insisting on development in the area despite the court ruling two weeks ago that construction could not proceed.

Erdogan bristled Thursday after the European Parliament issued a nonbinding resolution expressing concern at the "disproportionate and excessive use of force" by police to quell the protest, which has resulted in the deaths of four people, including a policeman, and the injury of about 5,000.

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