Turkish protesters hunkered down in an Istanbul park Saturday, rejecting an olive branch the government had hoped would end two weeks of nationwide civil unrest.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offer to halt the redevelopment of Gezi Park that first ignited the protests was presented as a major concession but after conferring all night the protesters said their movement was about something bigger than a conservation struggle.
“We will continue our resistance in the face of any injustice and unfairness taking place in our country,” the Taksim Solidarity group, seen as most representative of the protesters, said in a statement. “This is only the beginning.”
The decision looked set to inflame tensions a day after Erdogan offered to halt the Gezi Park redevelopment until a court ruled on its legality, his first major conciliatory gesture yet in a bid to end the biggest challenge of his Islamist-rooted government’s 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.
In the capital Ankara, meanwhile, riot police again fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators overnight. Around 30 protesters were arrested.
Later on Saturday, tens of thousands of supporters of Erodgan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were expected to take to the streets of the capital for an election rally, in what has been billed as a show of strength for the embattled premier.
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, 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.
After taking a combative stance against the demonstrators, dismissing them as “looters” and “extremists”, Erdogan on Friday held his first talks with an umbrella group called Taksim Solidarity, seen as most representative of the protesters.
He agreed to abide by a court-ordered suspension of the project -- a move welcomed by the protesters. He also 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.
But Taksim Solidarity said the government had failed to address their list of demands, including a call for arrested demonstrators to be released and for police chiefs to be sacked.
Buoyed by the dialogue with Erdogan, the group said the protesters were “stronger” than ever. “The party in power has lost its legitimacy before the eyes of local and international media and failed to achieve its objective.”
“We will stay because our demands have not been satisfied by the government,” Gezi Park protester Ata told AFP, adding that the protests had given him renewed confidence in his country.
“I’m very hopeful now for the future of this country and also for my own future. Nothing will be the same in Turkey,” the 32-year-old doctorate student said.
“The general opinion is to resist,” said 20-year-old medicine student Pelin on her way to the park.
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 repeatedly urged supporters to answer the protesters by voting for his AKP in local polls next year.
Britain’s BBC meanwhile announced it had suspended ties with Turkey’s private station NTV after it pulled a BBC program that covered the initial failure of mainstream Turkish media to cover the protests.
Turkey’s protesters have already criticized the country’s mainstream media for failing to properly cover the story.
- Turkey park protesters mull next move after PM concession
- Turkey’s response to the EU: ‘sorry, wrong number’
- Turkey PM issues ‘last warning’ for Istanbul park protesters
- Turkey’s Foreign Minister rejects EU criticism
- Turkey protests do not affect Istanbul 2020 Olympics bid
- Turkey detains a ‘main perpetrator’ of bombings that killed 51