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December 18, 2014

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Turkey PM gives ‘final warning’ to park protesters to get out

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's prime minister issued a "final warning" to protesters on Thursday, demanding that they end their occupation of a park next to Istanbul's landmark Taksim Square.

Sticking to his trademark defiant tone, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also rejected condemnation by the European Parliament over the excessive use of force by Turkish riot police against demonstrators.

The comments show that Erdogan appears determined to end two weeks of widespread protests that have trained an unflattering spotlight on his Islamic-rooted government and have morphed into the biggest street unrest of his 10-year tenure.

"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, issuing the ultimatum to the thousands of holdouts in a sit-in in Istanbul's Gezi Park, which is next to the square. He urged parents with children at the park to convince them to pack up and go home.

The protests erupted May 31 after a violent police crackdown on a sit-in by activists objecting to a development project that would cut down the trees in Gezi Park and replace them with a replica of Ottoman-era barracks. The demonstrations then spread to dozens of cities, rallying tens of thousands of people each night, and shifted into a broader protest over Erdogan's rule.

Police have repeatedly fired water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters; five people, including a police officer, have died and over 5,000 people and 600 police have been reported injured.

Protesters object to what they 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 he rejects.

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.

The EU assembly said it "deplores the reactions of the Turkish Government and of Prime Minister Erdogan" — and accused him of increasing the polarization of the situation.

Just minutes before the EU legislature voted, Erdogan drew raucous applause among Turkish party leaders by saying: "I won't recognize the decision that the European Union Parliament is going to take about us ... Who do you think you are by taking such a decision?"

On Wednesday, in an effort to calm the protests, Erdogan's Justice and Development party proposed holding a referendum on the Gezi Park development plan.

The protesters who have camped out in Gezi Park by the thousands have served as a base for even larger numbers of protesters who have congregated by the tens of thousands on Taksim Square — usually in the evening, after work.

On Tuesday, police drove back protesters from the square in a particularly forceful manner, ripping down their banners and barricades and clearing the way for automobile traffic to return.

In his speech Thursday, Erdogan said he had instructed police that "we cannot allow lawbreakers to hang around freely in this square ... We will clean the square."

Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu went on a nationally-televised talk show Thursday and offered to meet with the demonstrators. He said no police raid was yet planned for the park — and though he didn't rule one out. He said the public would be informed ahead of time if one was imminent.

Also Thursday, 26-year-old Ethem Sarisuluk — who had been on life support for days — was pronounced dead, according to his family lawyer. He was believed to have been hit in the head by a tear gas canister June 1 during protests in Ankara. Lawyers were going to sit in on the autopsy to verity the exact circumstances leading to his death.

Elena Becatoros in Istanbul and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

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