The Herald Bulletin

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June 15, 2013

Turkish PM supporters turn out in force at rally

SINCAN, Turkey — Tens of thousands of backers of the Turkish prime minister were rallying Saturday, a powerful show of support for the government as it faces off with protesters in a two-week stand-off that has fanned nationwide demonstrations.

Flag-waving supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan converged Saturday in Sincan — a suburb of the capital Ankara that is a stronghold of his Justice and Development Party. Organizers hoisted a giant poster of Erdogan above a platform where he was expected to speak later.

Protesters have vowed to press on with a sit-in at Istanbul's Gezi Park, defying government appeals and a warning from Erdogan to leave. The announcement from Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of protest movements in Gezi Park, is putting the spotlight on Erdogan's Saturday speech.

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. But concessions over the park seem to no longer be enough.

A violent police crackdown on what began as an environmental protest over a redevelopment plan sparked a much broader 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.

Earlier this week, Erdogan ordered the adjacent Taksim Square to be cleared of protesters who had also been staging a sit-in there. Police moved past improvised barricades on Tuesday, firing tear gas and rubber bullets and using water cannons to fend off small groups of demonstrators throwing stones, bottles and firebombs. Tear gas was also fired through the trees into the park, although the protesters were not removed.

Taksim Square itself returned to normal right after the end of the police operation early Wednesday. Traffic returned, the protest banners and flags were taken down, and cafes set up their chairs and tables outside again. At night, demonstrators still spill out from the park down the steps, while riot police keep watch from the edges.

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 at Gezi Park 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 demanded that apart from the park being left intact, anyone responsible for excessive police force must resign or be fired, all activists detained in the protests should be released, and the police use of tear gas and other non-lethal weapons be banned.

"As of today, with the dynamism and strength that comes from the struggle that has spread to the whole country, and even the world, we shall continue the resistance against all kinds of injustice and victimization in our country," Taksim Solidarity said in a statement posted on its website and later read out in the park. The group didn't say explicitly that it would remain in the park.

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

Although the most prominent group to emerge from the protests, Taksim Solidarity doesn't speak for everyone occupying Gezi. With many protesters saying they have no affiliation to any group or political party, many could make individual decisions on whether to stay or leave.

But there were few signs of anyone intending to pack up Saturday afternoon, and the daily activity in what has become a tent city continued with little indication of change. Deliveries of bottles of water and food arrived, people lined up for servings of lunch, while others cleared garbage and swept the paths clean after the morning rain.

According to the government's redevelopment plan for Taksim Square, the park would be replaced with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. Under initial plans, the construction would have housed a shopping mall, though that has since been amended to the possibility of an opera house, a theater and a museum with cafes.

Protesters angered by the project began occupying the park last month, but the police crackdown on May 31 saw the demonstrations spread to dozens of cities across the country. In recent days they have concentrated on Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.

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 rallies on Saturday and Sunday in Ankara and Istanbul.

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

Earlier Saturday, 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.

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

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