ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey's prime minister was meeting with anti-government protesters early Friday, hours after giving them his "final warning" to end their occupation of a central Istanbul park that has become a flashpoint for the largest political crisis of his 10-year rule.
If the talks break down, an eventual police intervention to clear Taksim Square's Gezi Park of the thousands of protesters who have been camping there for two weeks seemed increasingly likely.
As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks in the capital, Ankara, Istanbul's governor hosted a midnight meeting with any protesters who cared to join him at a cafe near Taksim Square — vowing to consult with them "until the morning if necessary" on finding a solution to the Gezi Park sit-in.
"I hope this meeting will be a message to youngsters from different ages in Gezi Park ... we are trying to end this issue without (police) having to intervene," Huseyin Avni Mutlu told reporters on the way in.
Even if a deal is reached, however, it does not guarantee the sit-in will end. Although the Taksim Solidarity group, two of whose members were meeting with Erdogan, 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 Gezi and on Taksim Square, thousands gathered in a peaceful, festive show of defiance, many dancing to tunes played on a grand piano delivered to the square on a truck. But in the capital, Ankara, a demonstration by hundreds of protesters rallying in sympathy with the Gezi Park activists turned violent, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
Erdogan has maintained a hard line against the demonstrations since they began two weeks ago and spread across the country, angrily denouncing the protesters as looters and vandals. He has said the unrest was instigated by a variety of interests, including foreign media and interest rate lobbies intent on destroying Turkey's international reputation and halting its economic growth.
Five people, including a police officer, have died and over 5,000 protesters and 600 police have been reported injured in clashes.
On Thursday, Erdogan gave his starkest warning yet that the protests, which have trained an unflattering spotlight on his Islamic-rooted government, must end.
"We have arrived at the end of our patience," Erdogan said in Ankara.
"I am giving you my final warning."
Earlier this week, riot police armed with tear gas, water cannon and plastic bullets moved into the park's adjacent Taksim Square, which had also been under occupation, and cleared it of protesters and banners in a day-long operation as groups of demonstrators fought back with stones, firebombs, bottles and fireworks.
Although the vast majority of the thousands camping in the park have been peaceful, police also fired dozens of rounds of tear gas in among the tents. Volunteers at a makeshift infirmary there said hundreds were treated for injuries or the effects of tear gas.
As the domestic and international outcry has grown against the police's often heavy-handed tactics, Erdogan has sought to present a somewhat more pragmatic side in the last few days, offering to hold a referendum on the park development project which served as the spark to ignite the nation-wide protests.
The demonstrations spread to dozens of cities across the country after a May 31 violent police crackdown on environmental protesters staging a sit-in at Gezi Park to stop construction that would replace the park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks.
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
In Ankara, Erdogan was meeting with eight artists and two members of Taksim Solidarity, a group that has coordinating much of the Gezi sit-in, the state-run Anadolu agency said. It was the first time Erdogan has met directly with representatives of the protesters.
Speaking before the talks, Taksim Solidarity member Canan Calagan, who was one of those participating, told The Associated Press 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.
Erdogan has set no deadline for the park to be cleared, although he has made clear it should be soon.
Mutlu, the governor, insisted Thursday 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.
Erdogan also lashed out at the European Parliament over a 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.
"I won't recognize the decision that the European Union Parliament is going to take about us!" Erdogan said shortly before the vote, 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.