ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an immediate end to mass protests against his rule Friday but urged supporters to “go home” after they staged a major show of strength welcoming him home from an overseas trip.
Waving Turkish flags and chanting “We will die for you, Erdogan” and “Let’s go crush them all”, supporters of the premier’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) staged their first rally after keeping largely silent during seven days of violent anti-government demonstrations across the country.
“I call for an immediate end to the demonstrations, which have lost their democratic credentials and turned into vandalism,” Erdogan said in a speech at the Istanbul airport where he returned from a North Africa trip, to roaring cheers from the crowd.
Flanked by his wife and prominent government ministers, the premier praised his supporters for their restraint in recent days, but stressed that he was “the servant” of every citizen in the country.
“You have remained calm, mature and showed common sense,” he said. “We’re all going to go home from here… You’re not the type of people to bang pots and pans on the streets.”
Earlier, tens of thousands of angry anti-government protesters again packed cities across the country to call for the premier’s resignation.
The nationwide unrest, fuelled by anger against what protesters see as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, has claimed a third life with the death of a policeman, media said.
Doctors have reported thousands of injured in the past week as police tried to quell the rallies in major cities with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon.
Erdogan has so far responded with defiance to the biggest challenge of his decade-long rule, and further enraged protesters on Thursday by vowing to press ahead with the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, whose conservation fight lit the flame of the protests.
Speaking in Tunis ahead of his return, Erdogan reiterated his claims that extremists and foreign agitators were to blame for the violence.
“Among the protesters, there are extremists, some of them implicated in terrorism,” including some who were in Taksim Square where the trouble broke out last week, he told reporters.
Seven foreigners implicated in the unrest have been arrested, Erdogan said, without specifying what part they had played in the violence.
In Istanbul, whistle-blowing, banner-waving demonstrators said they were determined to keep up their protests.
“We are angry. He doesn’t listen,” said 25-year-old biologist Senay Durmus in Taksim Square.
“This started with some trees. But I think it’s about freedom,” added Ali Ihsan Canimoglu, 32, goggles wrapped around his wrist to protect his eyes in case of a tear gas attack.
A Turkish policeman died in hospital Wednesday hours after being injured in a fall while chasing anti-government protesters in the southern city of Adana, the private NTV news channel said.
His death marked the first police fatality in seven days of clashes, with two young male protesters killed earlier.
Opposition to Erdogan is intense, but the 59-year-old has won three elections in a row and gained almost 50 percent of votes in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth in recent years.
The national doctors’ union has said that more than 4,300 have been injured in recent days, 47 of them seriously.
Erdogan’s critics accuse him of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation.
Turkey, while acknowledging some police excesses, has hit back at criticism of its handling of the crisis, a Turkish foreign ministry source told AFP on Wednesday.
The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had told US Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone call Tuesday: “Turkey is not a second-class democracy.”
The US State Department later denied suggestions this was Washington’s view of its NATO ally, a key strategic partner in the region, but said it had concerns “about instances of police brutality”.
A top US official urged Turkish leaders Thursday to refrain from “unhelpful comments” after Erdogan accused “terrorists” of stoking the protests.
Other Western allies of Turkey — a country that straddles East and West and has long aspired to join the European Union — have also voiced concern over the violence.
The Istanbul stock market plunged after Erdogan spoke in Tunis, closing nearly five percent lower. It had earlier recovered from a 10 percent plunge on Monday.