An antigovernment protester looks toward Taksim Square from Gezi Park… (Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images )
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Besieged Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was meeting early Friday with antigovernment protesters after giving them a “final warning” to end a 2-week-old demonstration that has damaged Turkey’s international image and brought chaos and bloodshed to downtown Istanbul.
The meeting, which included members of the Taksim Solidarity, a leading dissident group, appeared to be a last-minute effort by the prime minister to avert a police crackdown to remove thousands of demonstrators from Gezi Park. Taksim Solidarity does not represent all protesters and it was unclear how demonstrators would react to the outcome of the talks.
Hours earlier, Erdogan had said during a speech at a meeting 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.”
The meeting with members of Taksim Solidarity came a day after Erdogan gave protesters one day to end their occupation of Gezi Park in central Istanbul, an ultimatum that rights groups said added fuel to a crisis they say has given rise to “appalling levels of violence.”
An air of ensuing standoff between an angry leader and a defiant group of dissidents was palpable. The protesters have put Istanbul in the international spotlight with a demonstration that grew from a protest against development in the park to a rally against Erdogan’s increasing authoritarian rule.
The prime minister’s political party has suggested that he is 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 park, raising fears 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 from Gezi, while teams of workers spraypainted over the screeds of antigovernment political graffiti. 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.
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.
“I do not recognize any decision that the Parliament of the European Union makes on Turkey,” Erdogan said during the meeting in Ankara. “How come the members of its Parliament took a decision that concerns my country? How could they dare?”
The EU action focused attention on the tense, years-long negotiations regarding Turkey, a NATO member, entering the European Union. Germany and other countries have expressed doubts about Erdogan’s commitment to civil rights, and the crackdown on protesters raised fresh concern.
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Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Johnson from Istanbul.