Turkey PM Erdogan's party rules out holding early elections

ISTANBUL (AP) - Turkey's Prime Minister convened his party leadership on Saturday to discuss anti-government protests that have entered their ninth day, as an opposition party leader urged the government to call early elections and renew its mandate.

With thousands of people still occupying Istanbul's central Taksim Square, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met top officials from his Justice and Development Party in Istanbul. He has said the protest must end immediately.

Speaking after the meeting, party spokesman Huseyin Cilik ruled out early elections, saying rumors that the 2015 General Elections would be moved forward were bogus.

Earlier, the head of Turkey's nationalist party Devlet Bahceli had called for early elections for Mr Erdogan to reaffirm his mandate.

"The Prime Minister's stance and the tumult have deepened the crisis," Mr Bahceli told reporters. "The Prime Minister's time is up, we believe he has to renew his mandate."

The protests began as a sit-in at a park in Taksim Square to prevent a redevelopment project that would replace the park with replica Ottoman barracks and a shopping mall. The mall idea seems to have fallen by the wayside, with Mr Erdogan recently saying an opera house, theatre and possibly a museum would be built instead.

But violent intervention by the police to eject the protesters on May 31 outraged many, and the protests spread to dozens of cities across Turkey.

Over the past nine days of demonstrations and frequent violent confrontations with police, three people have been killed - two protesters and a policeman - and thousands have been injured.

The protests have attracted a broad array of people angered by what they say are Mr Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian ways and his intervention in private lives. They point to attempts to curtail the selling and promotion of alcohol, his comments on how women should dress and statements that each woman should have at least three children.

A devout Muslim who says he is committed to upholding Turkey's secular tradition, Mr Erdogan vehemently rejects charges of autocracy and points out that he enjoyed 50 per cent support in the last election in 2011.

Over the past week, protesters - mainly young, secular and middle-class, but also including some religious Muslims who were formerly Erdogan supporters - have set up camp at Taksim Square and its Gezi Park. They have vowed to remain there until the development project for the area is cancelled - something Mr Erdogan has shown no signs of being willing to do.

On Saturday, Istanbul's mayor confirmed that the government would go ahead with plans to reconstruct the Ottoman barracks in Taksim but had abandoned plans to build a shopping mall, luxury hotel or residences. He said all projects would be progressed in consultation with civil society groups.

But the protests continued. Hundreds of football fans from Istanbul's rival soccer teams Fenerbahce and Besiktas joined forces on Saturday to march from the Bosphorus to Taksim Square to show their solidarity. The Fenerbahce fans arrived from the Asian side of the city onboard a ferry, cheering and waving team scarves as they joined up with the Besiktas fans.

In Ankara, the police removed about a dozen tents erected by protesters at a park in the capital, Ankara. No trouble was reported. The police in the city set up barricades as thousands of people began a march towards a central square.

While Taksim Square has been generally quiet for the past few days, clashes have broken out in other parts of the city. Riot police used water cannon and tear gas against protesters who set up street barricades in the Sultangazi neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul overnight.

Witnesses said at least one person was injured, hit in the face by a tear gas canister. Early ob Saturday, bloodstains could be seen on the ground amid debris from burned garbage bins and damaged shops.