Turkey protesters say PM Erdogan promises to respect courts on park plans

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (REUTERS) - Turkish protesters said on Friday that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had pledged not to push ahead with plans to redevelop an Istanbul park until a court ruled on the project, in what they heralded as a positive sign after two weeks of protest.

Mr Erdogan met a delegation overnight mostly made up of actors and artists but also including two members of the umbrella protest group Taksim Solidarity, hours after saying his patience had run out and warning protesters occupying Gezi Park to leave.

Taksim Solidarity said Mr Erdogan had promised to abide by the outcome of an ongoing court case filed in an effort to stop the redevelopment and would hold a referendum on the plans if the court found in the government's favour.

"The prime minister said that if the results of the public vote turned out in a way which would leave this area as a park, they will abide by it," Tayfun Kahraman of the protest group told reporters following the meeting.

"His comments that the project will not be executed until the judiciary makes its decision is tonight's positive result."

A police crackdown on the park nearly two weeks ago triggered an unprecedented wave of protest against Mr Erdogan and his AK Party - an association of centrists and conservative religious elements - drawing in secularists, nationalists, professionals, unionists and students.

Police fired teargas and water cannon day after day in cities including the capital of Ankara last week, while youths threw stones and petrol bombs in Turkey's worst unrest in years.

Three people, including a police officer, died and about 5,000 were injured, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

Mr Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of the ruling AK Party who was also in the talks, said the meeting had been positive but he reiterated Erdogan's position that the occupation had to end.

"Our government has been very tolerant, as tolerant as it goes in a democracy, but I don't think the government will leave that place under occupation for long," he said.

Separately, Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu offered to meet demonstrators from Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests, at a cafe by the Bosphorus waterway to discuss their demands that the government abandon plans to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks on the park, which adjoins Taksim.

"For those who want to talk face to face tonight, from midnight we will talk in groups, if necessary until morning," Mr Mutlu said on his Twitter account.

Mr Erdogan has already discussed the plans to build over the park with various people who support the protesters, but had initially refused to meet with the Taksim Solidarity group at the heart of the campaign to protect it.

Late on Thursday, he appeared to suggest that hundreds of protesters, camped out in a ramshackle settlement of tents in Gezi Park, could be forcibly evicted, although Mr Mutlu said later there were no such immediate plans.

"Our patience is at an end. I am making my warning for the last time. I say to the mothers and fathers, please take your children in hand and bring them out... Gezi Park does not belong to occupying forces but to the people," Mr Erdogan said.

Taksim, where police fired teargas and sent thousands scurrying into side streets two nights ago, was crowded but calm overnight. Some of the assembled masses chanted and danced, while others listened to a concert pianist who has taken up residence amid the protesters as riot police looked on.

Mr Erdogan met a group of academics, artists and students who support the Gezi Park protests on Wednesday and Mr Celik said then they had discussed the possibility of a referendum on the plans to build on the park.

The offer is one of the only concessions the authorities have publicly floated after days of firm rhetoric from Erdogan refusing to back down.

The protesters in Gezi Park were sceptical following that first meeting, saying the delegation was unrepresentative and rejecting the idea of a referendum, saying their demands - primarily that the construction plans be halted - were already clear and did not require a vote.

Mr Erdogan has captured an increasing share of the Turkish vote over the past three elections, but opponents say his uncompromising response has fueled the Taksim protests.

The United States has voiced concern about reports of excessive use of police force, while the European Parliament on Thursday warned the government against the use of "harsh measures" against peaceful protestors and urged Erdogan to take a "unifying and conciliatory" stance.

The comments were not welcomed by Ankara.

"Turkey is not a nation that needs to be taught a lesson in any way on these topics by any country or by any group of countries," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

Mr Erdogan, who has accused foreign forces, international media and market speculators of stoking unrest and trying to undermine the economy, said he would "share with the nation" on Friday details of what he called a "game being played with Turkey".

"It is as if the whole of Turkey is on fire, as if the whole of Turkey is collapsing," he said of some media coverage, describing it as "deceptive and unethical".

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