Turkey proposing vote over project at heart of protests

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ISTANBUL -- Turkey's government offered a first concrete gesture Wednesday aimed at ending nearly two weeks of street protests, proposing a referendum on an Istanbul development project that triggered demonstrations that have become the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 10-year tenure.

Protesters expressed doubts about the offer, however, and continued to converge in Taksim Square's Gezi Park, epicenter of the anti-government demonstrations that began in Istanbul 13 days ago and spread across the country. At times, police have broken up demonstrations using tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.

The protests erupted May 31 after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by activists objecting to a development project that would replace Gezi Park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. They then spread to dozens of cities, rallying tens of thousands of people each night.

In a skirmish late Wednesday in Ankara, police used tear gas and water cannon to break up some 2,500 protesters who set up makeshift barricades on a road leading to government offices.

The referendum proposal came after Mr. Erdogan, who had been defiant and uncompromising in recent days, met in Ankara with 11 activists, including academics, students and artists. But groups involved in the Taksim Square and park protests boycotted the meeting, saying they weren't invited and that attendees didn't represent them.

Greenpeace said it didn't participate because of an "environment of violence" in the nation, while Taksim Solidarity, which has been coordinating much of the Gezi Park occupation, said it had not been invited. The group reiterated its demands that Gezi remain a public park, that abusive senior officials be fired and that all detained protesters be released -- not issues the referendum would address.

But the discussion was the first sign that Mr. Erdogan was seeking an exit from the showdown. It came hours after some European leaders expressed concern about strong-armed Turkish police tactics and hopes that the prime minister would soften his stance.

Huseyin Celik, spokesman for Mr. Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, announced that it would consider holding a referendum on the development project. But he said any vote would exclude planned demolition of a cultural center that protesters also oppose, insisting that it was in an quake-prone area and had to come down.

In a more defiant note, he said the ongoing Gezi Park sit-in would not be allowed to continue "until doomsday," a sign that authorities' patience is running out. But Mr. Celik also quoted Mr. Erdogan as saying police would be investigated, and any found to have used excessive force against protesters would be punished.

Mr. Erdogan, who has claimed the extremists and "terrorists" orchestrated the protests, has become the centerpiece of protesters' ire. So a referendum would be a political gamble that the government can mobilize its supporters, win the vote, and then demonstrators would go home.

"The most concrete result of the meeting was this: We can take this issue to the people of Istanbul in a referendum. We can ask the people of Istanbul if they want it [the barracks]," Mr. Celik said. "We will ask them: 'Do you accept what's going on; do you want it or not?' "

But many protesters were skeptical. "I don't think anything changed with that," Hatice Yamak said of the referendum. "We don't think he will do it; I think he's lying."

"I think there will be a referendum, but it won't be fair," said Mert Yildirim, 28, who has been attending the protests nightly. "They will announce that the people want Gezi Park to become a shopping mall. They will cheat."

But Mr. Erdogan's maneuver could prove shrewd by putting protesters in a stance of rejecting a referendum, a quintessential exercise of democracy. Many have accused Mr. Erdogan, who was re-elected in 2011 and has presided over striking economic growth, of showing an increasingly authoritarian streak.

The referendum proposal "falls short, and it won't help. This is not the way town planning is done," said architect Korhan Gumus, a Taksim Solidarity Platform activist group member. "The referendum will polarize society even more. [Gezi Park] will become a battleground."

Turkish leaders were also grappling with a public image stain. International TV networks have beamed images of clashes on the square, including a muscular police sweep overnight Tuesday to Wednesday that Turkey's Human Rights Foundation said injured more than 600 people, including a 1-year-old baby.

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron called the Istanbul events "disturbing and concerning," while stopping short of criticizing Mr. Erdogan's response. A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany urged "de-escalation."

Over two weeks, four people have died in the protests, including a police officer, and more than 5,000 people have been hurt or sought tear gas treatment.

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