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Defying government, activists stay in park

by By ELENA BECATOROS and JAMEY KEATON Associated Press on June 15, 2013 10:10 AM

ISTANBUL — Protesters will press on with their sit-in at an Istanbul park, an activist said today, defying government appeals and a warning from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the two-week standoff that has fanned nationwide demonstrations to end.

The announcement from Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protest movements in Gezi Park, is likely to return the spotlight on Erdogan’s government — and how it will respond. He already has offered to defer to a court ruling on the legality of the government’s contested park redevelopment plan, and floated the possibility of a referendum on it.

Tayfun Kahraman — a Taksim Solidarity member who met with Erdogan in last-ditch talks that lasted until the pre-dawn hours Friday — said the protesters had agreed to continue their sit-in after holding a series of discussions about their response to the pledges made by Erdogan.

“We shall remain in the park until all of our democratic rights are recognized,” he told The Associated Press, insisting that four key demands laid out by protesters in the talks had not been met.

The group has insisted that apart from the park being left intact, it also wants anyone responsible for excessive police force to resign or be fired, all activists detained in the protests to be released, and for the police use of tear gas and other non-lethal weapons to be banned.

The “struggle will continue,” Taksim Solidarity said in a statement posted on its website and later read out in the park, adding that “we shall continue to keep watch over our park.”

As the statement was read out, many among the gathered crowd clapped and began shouting, “This is just the beginning — the struggle continues!”

The protesters are angry about government plans to pull down trees and redevelop the park area by building a replica Ottoman-era barracks.

An initial sit-in drew a forceful police response on May 31, setting off a series of protests — Turkey’s biggest in decades — across the country.

They quickly morphed into an expression of discontent about Erdogan’s government and what many said was his increasingly authoritarian manner of governing.

Erdogan, who was elected with 50 percent of the vote for his third term in 2011, vehemently rejects the accusations. But the protests put some of the greatest political pressure on him in his 10-year tenure.

After the demonstrations spread to dozens of cities, they have recently centered on Istanbul and Ankara. The protesters, ensconced in what has become a tent city in Gezi park, have shown no signs of leaving, and the park has become a symbol of a segment of society’s discontent with Erdogan.

The anger has been fanned because riot police have at times used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse mostly peaceful protesters.

Five people, including a police officer, have died and thousands of people have been injured — denting Erdogan’s international reputation.

The announcement from Taksim Solidarity came as Erdogan’s supporters were gearing up for their own pro-government demonstrations today and Sunday in Ankara and Istanbul.

Earlier today, President Abdullah Gul wrote on Twitter that “everyone should now return home,” insisting that “the channels for discussion and dialogue” have opened — an apparent reference to the talks between Erdogan and a small group of delegates from the protest.

On Thursday, Erdogan issued a “final” warning that the protesters must leave the park.

Overnight, police firing water cannons and tear gas dispersed protesters who erected street barricades near Turkey’s parliament in the capital, Ankara. It was the latest face-off between authorities and demonstrators over the park redevelopment plan and the police handling of the earliest days of the protests.

Keaten contributed from Ankara, Turkey. Suzan Fraser also contributed from Ankara.

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