Erdogan says Istanbul canal project to go ahead despite mayor's opposition

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey will soon hold a tender for a gigantic canal project on the edge of Istanbul, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday, despite calls from the city’s mayor to scrap the project over its potential environmental impact.

Erdogan and his AK Party say the 45-km (28-mile) Kanal Istanbul, which will link the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, aims to ease traffic along the nearby Bosphorus Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways, and prevent accidents there.

Environmentalists and urban planners say the canal fringing Istanbul, a vast city of 15 million people and limited green space, will destroy ecosystems vital for marine animals and migratory birds.

A financial crisis last year followed by economic recession raised further doubts about the plans and new Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has opposed the project, even calling for a referendum to determine if it should go ahead.

Erdogan, who has dubbed it his “crazy project”, dismissed the concerns on Thursday, saying Kanal Istanbul would protect the city from disaster and that a tender would be held as soon as possible.

“The mayor (Imamoglu) is now saying Kanal Istanbul is not appropriate for here. Mind your own business,” he said, adding that it would be an “environmental salvation”.

Imamoglu has said that the project, expected to cost up to 70 billion lira ($12 billion), would be difficult to finance, wreak environmental havoc and paralyze life in the city while construction proceeds.

“What is the point of turning this city upside down for at least 5-6 years and making everywhere into a construction site? This city is a gift of God. Do not betray this city,” he said last month.

Imamoglu inflicted the worst electoral defeat of Erdogan’s political career when he trounced the AKP candidate in the Istanbul mayoral elections earlier this year, and is now seen by some as a potential contender for president under Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The canal project, which will include new residential and business zones alongside the waterway, is one of the most ambitious of the infrastructure mega-schemes Turkey has undertaken during Erdogan’s 17-year rule.

Urbanization in Istanbul has been a source of concern for many Turks. Protests against construction plans at Gezi park in central Istanbul mushroomed into nationwide anti-government demonstrations in 2013.

Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Mark Heinrich