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Turkish government, protesters seek to draw sting from unrest

People sleep at Taksim square in central Istanbul June 10, 2013. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
People sleep at Taksim square in central Istanbul June 10, 2013. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

By Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's deputy prime minister said on Wednesday he had no objection to silent anti-government protests inspired by a symbolic "Standing Man" vigil, comments that could help draw the sting out of three weeks of often violent demonstrations.

Protests against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government have become increasingly creative in recent days, as police and demonstrators seek to avoid the fierce clashes that have dented Turkey's reputation for stability in the volatile Middle East.

Police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse around 5,000 demonstrators in the northern city of Eskisehir overnight, Dogan news agency said, and there were small disturbances in Ankara, but on nowhere near the scale of previous weeks.

In Istanbul, the cradle of the unrest that has unsettled markets and presented Erdogan with the greatest public challenge of his 10-year rule, a sense of calm returned to streets around the central Taksim Square that saw nights of running battles.

Hundreds of protesters stood silently on squares including Taksim, as well as in Ankara and other cities, taking their lead from a performance artist whose eight-hour vigil on Monday lit up social media and made him the new face of the protests.

"These kinds of protests should be encouraged," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters in Ankara. "They involve no violence, but still are successful in conveying messages, and we should welcome these messages."

The silent protests could however pose a fresh challenge to Erdogan if they gather momentum, although he has moved to wrest back the political initiative with weekend rallies in Istanbul and Ankara attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The government said it would differentiate between what it says are legitimate, peaceful protesters and what Erdogan has called "riff-raff" manipulated by "terrorists", but demonstrators have complained of disproportionate use of police force.

One key test will come at the weekend, when clashes between protesters and police in several major cities have been at their fiercest before dying down when the working week begins.

"PEACEFUL RESISTANCE"

Taksim Solidarity, the protest umbrella group, called on supporters to leave shoes outside the 14th century Galata Tower, a popular tourist destination, as a symbol of solidarity for those injured or detained in the clashes.

According to the Turkish Medical Association, the protests have left four people, including one policeman, dead, and some 7,500 suffering from injuries ranging from cuts and burns to breathing difficulties from teargas inhalation.

The Istanbul Bar Association said 163 people remained in detention in the city on Wednesday. Only four people had been formally arrested out of all of those detained since late May.

What started as a small-scale action by environmentalists opposed to government plans to build on Gezi Park, a rare green space in Istanbul's teeming center, quickly became a broader expression of dissatisfaction with Erdogan and his government.

The leader has adopted a defiant tone throughout the unrest, and defended police whose use of teargas and water cannon to control sometimes unruly crowds brought widespread condemnation at home and abroad.

In an amphitheatre located in Istanbul's central Besiktas district, more than a thousand mostly young people gathered late on Tuesday to discuss where the protests were heading, and many expressed hope that there was an alternative to the violence.

"On Sunday I felt a big blank. What should we do next?" said 32-year-old Ilker Gumus, an industrial engineer, referring to last weekend's clashes around Gezi Park and Taksim Square that were among the fiercest so far.

"I was a bit pessimistic at first. I thought, 'This is over.' But then the 'Standing Man' came along in Taksim and I said 'Yes, we will go on!'."

Erdogan has said mass gatherings he has organized were to garner support for his ruling AK Party ahead of March municipal elections. He hits the campaign trail again on Friday, Saturday and Sunday even though the vote is some nine months away.

No rival to Erdogan has yet emerged on the streets or in parliament. His tenure has been marked by economic boom and a bid to extend Turkey's influence beyond its borders, as well as a politically risky drive to negotiate an end to a three-decade-old Kurdish rebellion.

Erdogan's authority rests on three successive election victories, the last achieved with 50 percent support.

But his critics accuse him of disregarding the half of the population who did not vote for him. Some say he has connived to subvert the secular constitution and create an order based on religious principles - something Erdogan denies.

(Additional reporting by Can Sezer, Daren Butler and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; writing by Mike Collett-White; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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