ISTANBUL: Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government said Tuesday it had “learnt its lesson” and appealed for an end to mass street protests that have convulsed the country for days in the worst political crisis in a decade.
The United Nations joined Washington in pressing for a full investigation into allegations of excessive use of police force against anti-government demonstrators while Turkey’s main union federation launched a two-day strike over what it branded “state terror”.
The embattled government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to ease tensions by apologising to wounded demonstrators and admitting that actions by security forces against people with “rightful demands” had caused the situation to get out of hand.
“The government has learnt its lesson from what happened,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said at a press conference. “We do not have the right and cannot afford to ignore people. Democracies cannot exist without opposition.”
Arinc called on “responsible citizens” to stop the protests which he said had left about 300 people wounded in five days although rights groups have put the number of injured much higher and two people have lost their lives.
Violence raged overnight as riot police in Istanbul and Ankara fired tear gas and water cannon at flag-waving protesters who set cars ablaze, hurled stones and bellowed angry slogans against Erdogan and his Islamic-leaning policies, chanting “Tayyip, Resign!”
The situation was calm by early afternoon, with a few scattered groups of demonstrators waving the flags of unions and political groups in the heart of Istanbul, one of the world’s most visited cities.
Erdogan has remained defiant, lashing out at “extremists” and dismissing accusations he is a “dictator” as he pressed ahead with a tour of north Africa despite the trouble at home.
The violence first erupted after police cracked down on a peaceful rally in Istanbul against plans to build over Gezi Park, a rare green spot adjoining the city’s main Taksim Square. But it quickly mushroomed into broader protests in dozens of other cities by Turks who accuse the government of pushing conservative Islamic reforms.
One protester was killed in the southern city of Antakya on Monday, local officials said, after a young man was killed in the main battleground of Istanbul on Sunday when a car ploughed into a crowd of demonstrators.
The situation in Taksim was calm on Tuesday, with scattered groups of demonstrators waving red flags.
The UN joined Turkey’s Western allies in voicing concern about reports of excessive force by police and calling for a full investigation into allegations they had violated international human rights standards.
“Such investigations should be prompt, thorough, independent and impartial, and the perpetrators should be brought to justice,” said Cecile Pouilly, spokeswoman for the UN high commission for human rights.
She echoed comments Monday by US Secretary of State John Kerry who said Washington was concerned about the number of people injured and urged all sides to “avoid any provocations or violence” in the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular nation.
“We obviously hope that there will be a full investigation of those incidents and full restraint from the police force with respect to those kinds of incidents,” Kerry said.
The NATO-member and longtime EU hopeful is a key regional ally for the United States, and the two countries have been working together closely, particularly over the brutal conflict in neighbouring Syria.
The Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions (KESK) which represents 240,000 workers, launched a two-day strike which could affect schools, universities and public offices across Turkey, a country of 75 million people sitting at the crossroads of east and west.
“The state terror implemented against entirely peaceful protests is continuing in a way that threatens civilians’ life safety,” the KESK said in a statement, saying the crackdown showed the government’s “enmity to democracy”.
While Erdogan — who is heading to Algeria on Tuesday — has largely dismissed the protests, insisting they did not represent a “Turkish spring,” his ally President Abdullah Gul has been more conciliatory, telling demonstrators that their concerns were being heard.
The prime minister, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took power in 2002, has accused “vandals” and opponents including the main opposition Republican People’s Party of having a hand in the protests.
Opponents have accused Erdogan of repressing critics, including journalists, Kurds and the military, and pushing conservative Islamic policies including religious education reforms and a law curbing the sale of alcohol.
While the unrest has made headlines around the world, protesters have accused the mainstream local media of failing to properly cover the unrest, saying they were being cowed by the government.
Some prime-time TV stations aired documentaries on penguins and cooking shows instead of reporting on the unrest.
Erdogan, who has won three successive national elections, told protesters they should wait to express their views in polls next year, when observers expect him to make a run for president.
“For me, democracy comes from the ballot box.”