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After a Violent Night Turkish Government Considers Compromise to End Protests

June 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to Turkey and the protests against Prime Minister Erdogan that have gripped the country.

An uneasy calm held in Taksim Square at mid-morning in Istanbul. Riot police rested around a monument to modern Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk, and armored vehicles idled, their water cannons silent. But protesters insisted their resolve was unbroken.

KENAN OTLU, Protester: We do not want to withdraw or to go back one step. There were civil demands, and we were all united without any political help from any party. Here, there is a civil resistance and we will not get back until our demands are fulfilled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The daytime quiet was perhaps a product more of exhaustion than of any resolution to the near-two-week standoff. And it followed a violent night that left the square littered with debris.

Clashes between police and protesters raged through the night hours, with water cannon, tear gas fusillades. Protesters threw rocks and chunks of sidewalk and launched fireworks at police. It was the most serious confrontation in the square since the sit-in began, with environmentalists trying to preserve Gezi Park, one thin slice of green space in sprawling central Istanbul.

When police assaulted that initial gathering, other groups with a more pronounced political agenda joined in. Since then, protests have spread to other cities. Today, lawyers in the capital, Ankara, gathered to decry heavy-handed treatment.

EGE INAL, Attorney: Oppression has been going on for months. They are doing it to their own people and in doing so, the government is exactly like the ones that they have been criticizing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s a veiled reference to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad on Turkey’s southern border. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become a staunch supporter of Syrian rebels seeking to bring down Assad.

But now the protests here have morphed into the most-serious challenge to Erdogan’s rule since he first won office 10 years ago. The trouble has also laid bare long-simmering class and religious tensions between secular liberal groups on one side and Erdogan and his ruling Islamist Justice Party on the other.

Erdogan has bristled at the challenge, seeking to crush the protests and dismissing the throngs as outside agitators. He’s also calling for his supporters to turn out in large numbers later this week. But Turkey’s other senior leader, President Abdullah Gul, struck a more conciliatory tone again today, near the Black Sea in Turkey’s north, after meeting with schoolchildren.

ABDULLAH GUL, Turkish President: I have said since the beginning peaceful, nonviolent demonstrations, displays of opinion, sharing of ideas, these are all democratic rights. And we’re proud of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Ankara, Erdogan met with a delegation of 11 activists today, but others in the streets said that group wasn’t representative of the larger movement.

And after that meeting came the announcement from Erdogan’s Justice Party that a referendum on the park’s fate would be considered if the protesters finally leave.