By Ezgi Erkoyun and Emin Caliskan
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Istanbul's taxi drivers have taken Uber to court, accusing the U.S.-based ride-hailing app of endangering their livelihoods in a case that could crimp its business in Europe's largest city.
It is the latest instance of court action, restrictions, bans and protests around the world over Uber's high-tech, low-cost challenge to traditional taxi services. Uber was forced to shut down in Denmark and Hungary and has suspended operations in Morocco while it gets in line with local laws.
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Hundreds of Istanbul taxi drivers rallied in front of a city courthouse holding the first hearing on the case on Monday, holding up signs reading "We do not want the global thief Uber".
In their court action, the cabbies accuse Uber of running an unlicensed taxi service in Turkey and want the app banned. The next hearing was scheduled for June.
Tensions have risen in Istanbul, home to over 15 million people, since Uber entered the Turkish market in 2014. Some Uber drivers say they have been threatened and beaten by yellow cab drivers, an accusations the taxi industry denies.
Public sentiment on social media appears to be overwhelmingly in favor of Uber, with "#idon'tusetaxis" and "#don'ttouchuber" becoming trending topics in Turkish.
Some users of Uber have said they are fed up with what they call the rough manners and reckless driving of conventional cabbies, the circuitous, fare-inflating routes they take and the stench of cigarettes inside their vehicles.
"Until today, taxi drivers chose passengers," one user, Sinem, tweeted, referring to taxi drivers who won't accept short trips, even for pregnant women. "Now we want to choose our means of transportation. #donttouchuber."
Another user, Orhan, said that Uber drivers were more courteous and did not overcharge passengers.
Private broadcaster Haberturk reported last week that a group of taxi drivers recently hailed an Uber car and then beat the driver and damaged his vehicle.
"PLOTS AND PROVOCATIONS"
Such incidents are staged to sway public opinion and shape the outcome of the court case, according to Eyup Aksu, head of the Chamber of Istanbul Taxi Businesses, which represents around 50,000 taxi drivers with 18,000 licensed cabs.
"The reported incidents are plots and provocations done by Uber drivers in order to influence the case," Aksu said.
The issue has been escalated all the way to President Tayyip Erdogan, Aksu said, adding that the Interior Ministry was drafting regulations to foster a solution.
"If we do not get support politically, we will continue to repeat our stance to the politicians," he said.
No one was available for comment at the Interior Ministry.
Taxi drivers point to onerous costs they must pay but Uber does not. Number plates for taxis, required in Istanbul to drive a yellow cab cost around 1.5 million lira ($385,000), though in most cases a cabbie may "borrow" a plate from its owners for a monthly fee of 4,000-7,000 lira.
Uber said that about 2,000 yellow cab drivers use the Uber app to find customers, while another 3,000 work for UberXL, using large vans to transport groups to parties, or run people with bulky luggage to Istanbul's main airport.
It declined to reveal the number of Uber users in Turkey, where it operates in Istanbul, and in the resort towns of Bodrum and Cesme in the summer months.
"We are appalled by the violence and are doing everything we can to support (our) drivers," Uber said in an emailed statement, adding that it could not elaborate on the court case while it was still ongoing.
One Uber XL driver, Irfan Er, said a taxi driver threatened him with a knife one night last week as he was carrying passengers. He said he, too, had once been a yellow cab driver but wanted to be his own boss.
"We need to keep up with technology and current times. Uber is using the latest technology. We have to adjust accordingly."
($1 = 3.8978 liras)
(Editing by David Dolan and Mark Heinrich)