x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Erdogan proposes vote on Istanbul park at centre of protests

Prime minister makes proposal after four hourd of talks with members of the protest movement Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

People walk near Gezi Park on Wednesday in Istanbul. Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP
People walk near Gezi Park on Wednesday in Istanbul. Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP

ISTANBUL // Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday proposed to hold a referendum on the future of a park in Istanbul that is at the heart of an unprecedented unrest in the country.

After more than four hours of talks between Mr Erdogan and members of the protest movement that is shaking Turkey, Huseyin Celik, the spokesman of Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told a news conference last night that the fate ofthe Gezi Park redevelopment plan could be put to a vote.

"We can take this to the people of Istanbul in a referendum," Mr Celik said. He called on demonstrators who have been occupying the park for nearly two weeks to go home. "Life has to return to normal," he said.

A representative of demonstrators in the park said they would discuss the proposal.

"We will make an evaluation," Ongun Yucel, a spokesman for the Taksim Solidarity group that represents many demonstrators in the park, told The National after Mr Celik's comments.

The talks in Ankara were the first meeting of high-level government officials with protesters since the demonstrations began on May 31. Four people have died during the protests and more than 5,000 have been injured.

Tensions had been high yesterday in Istanbul, where demonstrators said they expected new police assaults on Gezi Park.

"It can happen any minute," said Cengiz, 29, an activist manning a booth with fire extinguishers to be used in case tents or trees in the park should catch fire in future confrontations. Cengiz, who would give only his first name, said he did not put any hope into the Ankara talks.

"I don't expect anything, just another attack," he said.

Hundreds of police officers in riot gear with several water cannons were deployed on Taksim Square next to the park yesterday. No incidents were reported.

Huseyin Avni Mutlu, the governor of Istanbul, said that a raid on the park was likely, despite earlier assurances the park would not be stormed by police.

"Supporters of groups that are fighting us are [hiding] among the young people in the park," Mr Mutlu said. "It has to be emptied as soon as possible."

Mr Erdogan's government has been confronted with an unprecedented wave of protests that began when police used what protesters called excessive force to break up a sit-in by environmentalists directed against a government construction project in Gezi Park.

Turkey's Human Rights Foundation said Istanbul prosecutors had launched an investigation into allegations of excessive use of police force during the protests.

In the talks yesterday, Mr Erdogan met a group of academics, students and artists.

Several members of the protest movement who had been invited by Mr Erdogan declined to take part, citing the atmosphere of violence.

The talks followed a day and a night of violence between police and protesters in Istanbul. Demonstrators said police attacked Gezi Park with tear gas until the early hours of yesterday and ventured about 60 metres into the park several times before withdrawing. The meeting was continuing last night.

The Human Rights Foundation said 620 people, including a one-year-old, were injured during the crackdown. Police detained about 70 people during the incidents.

After the police left, demonstrators erected a new barricade at the entrance to the park, using large metal fencing, material from a nearby construction site and cars that had been damaged in earlier violence.

Many demonstrators in the park walked around with gas masks and helmets, in expectation of a new police assault.

As part of the preparations for the expected next battle, activists placed dozens of half-filled water bottles throughout the park to be used as containers for police tear gas shells landing in the park. Some shells from the clashes of the night before could be seen in the water bottles.

But there were indications yesterday that support for the demonstrators from the general public in Istanbul remained strong.

"More food than ever is arriving," said a man in an area of the park used to sort food donations from citizens outside the camp. Activists were looking through hundreds of plastic bags filled with fruit, milk, water bottles, snacks and plastic spoons.

Also, thousands of lawyers staged protests in courthouses in Istanbul and several other cities criticising authorities for arresting dozens of their colleagues on Tuesday over their support for the demonstrators.


* With additional reporting by the Associated Press