Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Erdogan 'offers protest-row vote'

A Turkish boy waves a national flag in support of Turkish protesters who are sitting in Kugulu Park in Ankara (AP)

The Turkish government is open to holding a referendum over an Istanbul development plan that has underpinned nearly two weeks of mass protests, a ruling party official said.

The announcement from Justice and Development party spokesman Huseyin Celik came after talks between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a group of activists.

It amounts to the first big gesture by his government to end a stand-off with protesters in Istanbul's Taksim Square and beyond.

But on a more defiant note, Mr Celik said the government would not allow the ongoing sit-in in Gezi Park, next to the square, to continue "until doomsday" - a sign that authorities' patience is running out.

The prospect of a referendum amounts to a political gamble by Mr Erdogan, who has drawn the ire of protesters over his alleged authoritarian streak. He appeared to be betting that his strong base of support would vote for the plans.

The protests erupted on May 31 after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by activists objecting to the project to replace Gezi Park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. They then spread to 78 cities across the country and have attracted tens of thousands of people nearly every night.

Mr Celik said the referendum would be on the Ottoman-era barracks. But he said it would exclude the planned demolition of a cultural centre that the protesters also oppose. Mr Celik said the centre was in an earthquake-prone area, and needed to come down.

Mr Erdogan hosted the 11 activists - including academics, students and artists - in his offices in Ankara. Some leaders of civil society groups, including Greenpeace, had said they would not participate because of an "environment of violence" in the country.

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