PM Erdogan finally agrees to halt park project

June 14, 2013 | By More

June 15, AP – Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday agreed to halt plans to redevelop an Istanbul park at the centre of two weeks of mass anti-government unrest, in a move protesters welcomed as “positive”.

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It marked the first easing of tensions in the standoff, which has presented the Islamist-rooted government with the biggest challenge of its decade-long rule and earned it criticism from the West.

Hours after giving a “last warning” to defiant demonstrators camping out in Gezi Park, Erdogan made the concession in his first talks with a key group of protesters.

“The positive outcome from tonight is the prime minister’s explanation that the project will not continue before the final court decision,” Tayfun Kahraman, a spokesman for the Taksim Solidary group, seen as the most representative of the protest movement, said in televised remarks.

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.

Speaking after the late-night emergency meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik said the government would respect the court-ordered suspension of the park project.

He also confirmed that a referendum on the proposed reconstruction of Ottoman-era military barracks on the site would go ahead.

“But Gezi Park protesters should stop their demonstration now,” he warned.

The court process is expected to take several months. In the meantime, a probe is under way to investigate the use of excessive police force in dealing with the protesters across the country, Celik added.

In an updated toll Friday, the Turkish doctors’ association said almost 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.

Overnight, police again clashed with protesters in the capital Ankara, fire gas and jets of water to disperse some 200 protesters, witnesses told AFP.

Erdogan has taken a tough line on the mass demonstrations and on Thursday ordered people to evacuate Gezi Park, stoking fears of a police intervention if the protesters defied him.

“I’m making my last warning: mothers, fathers please withdraw your kids from there,” he said in a live television broadcast. “Gezi Park does not belong to occupying forces. It belongs to everybody.”

— ‘More than a park’ —

The Taskim Solidarity group said it would discuss its next move in talks with protesters on Friday evening.

Inside Gezi Park, many campers said they were determined to stay despite the government’s conciliatory gesture to suspend the project and abide by a referendum, saying 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 been entertaining protesters in nearby Taksim Square in recent days.

“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 criticised Erdogan’s handling of the crisis, which has undermined Turkey’s image as model of Islamic democracy.

On Thursday, the European Parliament passed a resolution warning Ankara against taking “harsh measures against the peaceful protesters,” earning a rebuff from Erdogan who responded: “Who do you think you are?”

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.

Associated press journalist for human rights observers – Norberto Lluch reports from the region.

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Category: European Crises

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