ISTANBUL: Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rallied supporters on Sunday after anti-government protesters burned tyres and hurled fireworks at riot police firing back tear gas in unrelenting civil unrest.
The fresh clashes raised pressure on Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted conservative government after he ordered an end to the protests, which have thrown up the fiercest challenge to his decade of rule.
Overnight tens of thousands poured into the streets in Istanbul, cradle of the 10 days of unrest, as well as in the capital Ankara and the major western city of Izmir.
The protests were mostly peaceful but local media said numerous people were injured in Ankara when police dispersed a crowd of about 10,000, sending them scrambling and tripping over each other with jets of water and gas.
Fresh clashes also erupted in Istanbul’s western Gazi neighbourhood, a working class district largely peopled by Alevis, a Muslim minority opposed to Erdogan, where rioters hurled incendiary devices and taunted police.
Turkey’s leader, who has reacted with defiance to the unrest, on Sunday urged supporters to respond to the protesters by voting for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at next year’s local elections.
“There are just seven months left until the local elections. I want you to teach them a first lesson through democratic means at the ballot box,” Erdogan said at the airport in the southern city of Adana, where he was greeted by thousands of loyalists in a sea of red Turkish flags.
The government insisted on Saturday that the protests were “under control”, but within hours some of the largest crowds yet packed Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where the unrest erupted on May 31 with a police crackdown on a campaign to save the adjacent Gezi Park from demolition.
The trouble spiralled into nationwide protests against Erdogan and his party, seen as increasingly authoritarian. Thousands have been injured and three people have died in the unrest so far, tarnishing Turkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
The atmosphere was festive overnight in Taksim, which has seen no police presence since officers pulled out last Saturday, with crowds of local football supporters setting off red flares as the masses danced and shouted deep into the night.
“We will not do what a few looters have done. They burn, they destroy,” Erdogan said Sunday, again dismissing the demonstrators as “anarchists” and “terrorists”.
“They are vile enough to insult a prime minister of this country,” he told the cheering crowd in Adana.
Adana too saw protesters doused with tear gas overnight. It is also where a policeman died on Wednesday after injuring himself in a fall during clashes.
In fresh bid to calm the turmoil, the man who ordered the initial police crackdown, the governor of Istanbul Huseyin Avni Mutlu, apologised on Twitter and said he wished he was with the protesters camping out on Taksim Square.
“I salute the young people of this country who chose to sleep on the square under the stars instead of in their warm beds.”
Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik on Saturday dismissed any talk of calling early elections to resolve the crisis. “You don’t decide on early elections because people are marching on the streets,” he told reporters in Istanbul.
Resting wearily on a blanket on Taksim Square with friends after a night of defiant chanting and dancing, architect Buse Albay, 25, said she would keep protesting against the premier for “as long as it takes until he goes away”.
Packing up his tent nearby, Aykut Kaya, a 23-year-old IT student, added: “It was amazing, so beautiful to see everyone together” in the overnight rally.
Erdogan has faced international condemnation for his handling of the unrest in Turkey, a NATO member and key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies.
The national doctors’ union says the unrest has left two protesters and a policeman dead while almost 4,800 people have been injured across Turkey.
Critics accuse Erdogan, in power since 2002, of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation, and of pushing big urban development projects at the expense of local residents.
Opposition to Turkey’s leader is intense, but his AKP party has won three elections in a row, having presided over strong economic growth.
Turkey will hold both local and presidential elections next year. The AKP plans to launch its first campaign rallies in Ankara and Istanbul next weekend. A general election is scheduled for 2015.