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ISTANBUL, April 4 (Reuters) - Turkish gold imports rose 17-fold to 28.2 tonnes in March, as Turks looking to hedge currency risk ahead of a referendum in two weeks time followed President Tayyip Erdogan's calls to buy gold instead of dollars.
After the sharpest falls in the Turkish lira since the 2008 financial crisis last November, Erdogan called on Turks to sell dollars and buy lira or gold to prop up the local currency. Gold imports have been rising year-on-year ever since.
"People have started opting for gold rather than foreign currencies," said Mehmet Ali Yildirimturk, a gold specialist in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, adding that a moderate recovery in the lira had also made gold more affordable again.
Gold imports to Turkey rose almost eightfold to 36.7 tonnes in December after Erdogan's calls, their highest monthly level in just over two years, according to data from the Precious Mines and Metals Markets of the Istanbul bourse.
Prices in Turkey surged from 132 lira ($36) for 24-carat gold in January to 153 lira in February. On Tuesday, gold prices were around 148 liras.
Gold is seen as a safe place to park assets during times of uncertainty. Turkey holds a referendum on April 16 on constitutional changes which would significantly boost Erdogan's powers, with polls suggesting a tight race.
$1 = 3.6664 liras Reporting by Behiye Selin Taner; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Nick Tattersall