Turkish protesters defiant as Erdogan delivers ultimatum
According to the Turkish Medical Association the unrest left four people dead and about 5,000 injured.
Ankara: Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan warned anti-government protesters on Saturday that security forces would clear Istanbul's Taksim Square if they did not withdraw before a ruling party rally on Sunday.
After two weeks of protests against his leadership, Erdogan vowed to crush his opponents at elections in 2014, in a speech to tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters on the outskirts of the capital Ankara.
"We will bring them to account in eight months at the ballot box. We will not make a concession, we will resist by ignoring their agitation. We will embrace victory one more time," he said, his voice cracking as he roared at the crowds.
He warned protesters still occupying Gezi Park on the edge of Taksim Square in central Istanbul that they should leave before a second ruling party rally, planned for Sunday on the edge of the city, or face intervention.
"We have our Istanbul rally tomorrow. I say it clearly: Taksim Square must be evacuated, otherwise this country's security forces know how to evacuate it," he said.
A police crackdown on peaceful campaigners in Gezi Park two weeks ago provoked an unprecedented wave of protest against Erdogan, drawing in secularists, nationalists, professionals, trade unionists and students who took to the streets in protest at what they see as his autocratic style.
The unrest, in which police fired teargas and water cannon at stone-throwing protesters night after night in cities including Istanbul and Ankara, left four people dead and about 5,000 injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
The protesters, who oppose government plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks on Gezi Park, have defied repeated calls to leave, remaining camped out night after night in a ramshackle settlement of tents.
They vowed to keep the campaign going on Saturday despite a promise from Erdogan to hold a vote on the redevelopment plans, saying the government had failed to meet other demands including the release of detained demonstrators.
"The government has ignored clear and rightful demands since the beginning of the resistance. They tried to divide, provoke and damage our legitimacy," the Taksim Solidarity Platform, an umbrella group for the protesters, said in a statement.
The group, whose representatives met Erdogan at his official residence in Ankara on Thursday night, said it had seen no serious signs of progress in holding those responsible for the police crackdown to account, nor in investigating the four deaths, one them a policeman.
"We continue to guard the park," said Mucella Yapici, a spokeswoman for the group.
Erdogan told protesters on Thursday that he would put the building plans on hold until a court rules on them. It was a softer stance, after two weeks in which he called protesters "riff-raff" and said the plans would go ahead regardless.
"The fact that negotiation and dialogue channels are open is a sign of democratic maturity," President Abdullah Gul, who has struck a more conciliatory tone than Erdogan throughout the protests, said on his Twitter account on Saturday.
"I believe this process will have good results. From now on, everybody should return home."
But at Saturday's rally in Ankara, Erdogan was defiant.
He called for unity among Turks and accused foreign forces, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), international media and market speculators of stoking unrest and trying to undermine the economy.
"We extended our hand ... to build a future together but we were given a fist. How can you shake hands with a fist?" Erdogan said.
What began as a campaign by environmentalists to save what they say is one of central Istanbul's few remaining green spaces spiralled into the most serious show of defiance against Erdogan and his AK Party in his decade in power.
Erdogan has said the AK Party rallies in Ankara and Istanbul are meant to kick off campaigning for local elections in 2014 and not related to the protests, but they are widely seen as a show of strength in the face of the demonstrations.
"I've come here for one reason: to support Tayyip, to support AKP. What is happening in Taksim is just shameful. It's being carried out by marginal groups, you've seen the PKK (Kurdish) flags up there," said Menderes Kan, 46.
Erdogan has long been Turkey's most popular politician, his AK Party winning three successive election victories, each time with a larger share of the vote, but his critics complain of increasing authoritarianism.
"At the beginning I felt sympathy towards those in Gezi Park and I thought our prime minister's tone was too harsh. But now the protests there have turned into something else," said Sumeyye Erdogmus, a 22-year-old nurse.
"Nothing can justify behaviour like cursing the prime minister's mother and burning buses. This is anarchy, and today we are here to show that our prime minister is not alone."