ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey's prime minister issued a "final warning" to protesters on Thursday, demanding they end their occupation of a park next to Istanbul's Taksim Square that has ignited the largest political crisis of his 10-year rule.
Despite the ultimatum by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, thousands of activists camping out in Gezi Park dug in for a potential culmination of their two-week standoff with authorities.
Thousands of protesters also converged on Taksim Square, where the atmosphere was festive. A musician played on a grand piano set up in the center of the square as protesters danced, while a heavy police presence stood by.
In a sign that efforts were being made to resolve the situation through negotiations rather than a police raid, Erdogan was meeting late Thursday with some representatives of the protesters occupying the park.
Eight artists and two members of Taksim Solidarity, a group that has coordinating much of the Gezi sit-in, were involved in the meeting in Ankara, the state-run Anadolu agency said. It was the first time Erdogan has met directly with representatives of the protesters.
Taksim Solidarity member Canan Calagan, who was one of those participating, told The Associated Press before the talks that the meeting "will be meaningful" because it included true representatives of the protesters.
"The language developed so far has, unfortunately, not been suitable. We hope after this meeting that empathy will prevail .... We are trying for this," she said.
However, even if a deal were to be reached, it was no guarantee the sit-in would end. Although the group has emerged as the most high-profile from the occupation that began last month, it does not speak for all the thousands of people camping in the park. Many say they have no affiliation to any group or party.
In Istanbul, the city's governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, also put out an invitation to meet protesters, saying on Twitter he would be available from midnight onward at a cafe in a neighborhood near Taksim for "those who want to meet face to face, group by group ... until the morning if necessary."
Erdogan's final warning in his speech earlier in the day showed he was determined to end the widespread protests that have trained an unflattering spotlight on his Islamic-rooted government.
"We have arrived at the end of our patience," Erdogan told local party leaders in Ankara, the capital.
"I am giving you my final warning," he said, directing his comments toward the protesters.
After a police raid Tuesday cleared Taksim Square of protesters who had been occupying it for nearly two weeks, chances were high that a raid on the adjacent Gezi Park would be ordered if the protesters refuse to leave. A heavy police presence remained on the square into the night Thursday.
In the capital, Ankara, about 200 people, many chanting rhythmically and waving Turkish flags emblazoned with images of modern Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, rallied at Kuvalu Park in sympathy with the Gezi Park activists.
Erdogan has set no deadline publically for the park to be cleared, and the Interior Ministry declined immediate comment on the subject. Istanbul's governor insisted no police raid was yet planned, although he didn't rule one out and said the public would be informed ahead of time.
Hulya Avsar, a prominent actress who met earlier Thursday with Erdogan, said he wanted to end the standoff soon.
"'In case they don't withdraw in 24 hours, there will be some sort of intervention,'" she quoted the prime minister as saying. "At that point, I said, 'I will leave' — because there was nothing to talk about."
Inside the park, which has turned into a burgeoning tent city complete with a library, a food distribution center, an infirmary, a children's activity center and a plant nursery, many scoffed at the prime minister's tactics and language, insisting Erdogan was turning a deaf ear to the roughly half of Turks who didn't vote for him when he was re-elected in 2011.
"Each of us is already an independent individual, may be also a father or a mother. My Mom and Dad do not think that there is an objection for being here," said demonstrator Hasan Husein Karabulut.
A violent police crackdown May 31 on a small environmental sit-in protesting a development project that would replace Gezi Park with replica Ottoman-era barracks sparked the protests that spread to dozens of cities. They morphed into a broader protest against what many say is the prime minister's increasingly authoritarian style and his perceived attempts to impose his religious and conservative views on a country with secular laws — charges Erdogan strongly rejects.
On several days, Turkish police have used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Five people, including a police officer, have died in the clashes and over 5,000 protesters and 600 police have been reported injured.
Erdogan also lashed out at the European Parliament over its non-binding resolution Thursday. In a show-of-hands vote suggestive of a broad majority, the EU Parliament expressed its concern over "the disproportionate and excessive use of force" by Turkish police against the demonstrators.
The EU assembly said it "deplores the reactions of the Turkish Government and of Prime Minister Erdogan" — and accused him of driving both sides further apart.
Just minutes before the EU legislature voted, Erdogan drew Turkish party leaders by dismissing the vote.
"I won't recognize the decision that the European Union Parliament is going to take about us!" Erdogan said, drawing raucous applause from his party members. "Who do you think you are by taking such a decision?"
Keaten reported from Ankara. Bassam Hatoum in Istanbul, Ezgi Akin in Ankara and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.