Turkish opposition head says will step up struggle as march nears end

Slideshow ( 8 images )

TUZLA, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey’s main opposition leader said on Friday his three-week “justice march” from Ankara to Istanbul had helped Turks “cast off a shirt of fear” under emergency rule, and vowed to stiffen his party’s challenge to the government once the protest ends.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has attracted tens of thousands of people to his march since setting off on the 450 km (280 mile) journey to protest a government crackdown since last year’s failed coup.

“Thousands of public servants, teachers, journalists were jailed or sacked and nobody could speak up. However, this march was done to take off this shirt of fear, for justice and I am pleased because we reached our goal,” Kilicdaroglu told Reuters during a lunch break on the outer edges of Istanbul.

“We will fight for (justice) inside and outside parliament,” said the 68-year-old politician, wearing a white shirt and a baseball cap with the word ‘Justice’ printed on it.

President Tayyip Erdogan accuses the protesters of “acting together with terrorist groups”, referring to Kurdish militants and followers of a U.S.-based cleric who Ankara says was behind last year’s coup.

The government has defended the crackdown, saying it was a measured response to the threats which Turkey faced from the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, and turmoil across its borders with Syria and Iraq.

On Friday the number of protesters accompanying Kilicdaroglu reached some 50,000. A large rally is expected on Sunday in Istanbul, supported by parliament’s third largest party, the pro-Kurdish HDP.

“The battle in parliament will most likely be tougher in the coming days because they want to limit our right to speak by changing the internal bylaws and it is impossible for us to tolerate this,” Kilicdaroglu said.

“Therefore this battle will get tougher, and it may even spill over to the streets.”

Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans