ISTANBUL - Turkey's prime minister issued a "final warning" to protesters on Thursday, demanding they end their occupation of a park next to Istanbul's Taksim Square that has ignited the largest political crisis of his 10-year rule.
Despite the ultimatum by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, thousands of activists camping out in Gezi Park dug in for a potential culmination of their two-week standoff with authorities.
But in a sign that he may resolve the situation through negotiations rather than a police raid, Erdogan was to meet late Thursday night with some representatives of the protesters occupying the park.
The state-run Anadolu agency said the prime minister was to meet with eight artists and two representatives from Taksim Solidarity, a group that has coordinating much of the Gezi sit-in. The talks would be the first time Erdogan has met directly with representatives of the protesters.
However, even if a deal is reached with Taksim Solidarity, the sit-in might not end. Although the group 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 a defiant speech earlier in the day, Erdogan also dismissed the European Parliament's condemnation over the excessive use of force by Turkish riot police against demonstrators.
The comments showed he was determined to end the widespread protests that have trained an unflattering spotlight on his Islamic-rooted government.
"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, directing his comments toward the protesters.
After a police raid Tuesday cleared Taksim Square of protesters who had been occupying it for nearly two weeks, chances were high that a raid on the adjacent Gezi Park would be ordered if the protesters refuse to leave.
A heavy police presence remained on the square into the night Thursday, but the timing of any potential raid was unclear.
Erdogan offered no timetable for it and the Interior Ministry declined immediate comment on the subject. The governor of Istanbul insisted 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, 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.
A violent police crackdown May 31 on a small environmental sit-in to protect trees in Gezi Park sparked the protests that spread to dozens of cities and morphed into a broader protest against Erdogan's rule.
On several days, Turkish police have used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Five people, including a police officer, have died in the clashes and over 5,000 protesters and 600 police have been reported injured.
In some ways, it was surprising that Gezi Park became the symbol of Turkey's anti-government protests. Although it is in Istanbul's touristy Taksim Square area, it had become a rather seedy place, frequented mostly by homeless men looking for a bench to sleep on.
But it was one of the city's few green spaces, its towering plane trees providing rare greenery in an increasingly sprawling metropolis. Many of those trees were scheduled to be cut down, however, in a redevelopment project that would replace them with a replica of Ottoman-era barracks.
After the initial police crackdown, the numbers of protesters swelled. Each day saw more tents pitched on the park's grassy verges, more banners erected, more donations of food and blankets for the protesters. Soon Gezi Park was a burgeoning tent city, complete with morning yoga lessons, a library, a food distribution center, an infirmary, a children's activity center and a plant nursery.
But the demonstrations have become about much more than the park, evolving into a denunciation of 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.
Erdogan, who rejects those charges, 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 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.
Just minutes before the EU legislature voted, Erdogan drew raucous applause among Turkish party leaders by dismissing the vote.
"I won't recognize the decision that the European Union Parliament is going to take about us!" he declared in Ankara. "Who do you think you are by taking such a decision?"
There have been some previous attempts to pacify the protesters. Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu went on a national TV talk show Thursday and offered to meet with the demonstrators. A day earlier, Erdogan's Justice and Development party proposed holding a referendum on the Gezi Park development plan.
But more often than not, the most visible government reaction has been from riot police.