Tens Of Thousands On Streets, Turkish PM Erdogan Defiant

by
Reuters
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rallied his supporters in a string of defiant speeches on Sunday as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators massed in Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

Tayyip Erdogan

* Mass demonstration in Istanbul's Taksim Square

* PM urges Turks not to allow sowing of "divisive seeds"

* Protesters want those responsible for crackdown sacked

* Also want government to abandon plans to revamp Gezi Park

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rallied his supporters in a string of defiant speeches on Sunday as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators massed in Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

Speaking in the southern Mediterranean coastal city of Adana, Erdogan dismissed the protesters and told cheering crowds to "teach them a lesson" at the ballot box next year, when Turkey holds local and presidential elections.

"Those now at Taksim, those who burn and destroy, those at various places across the country, I ask them, in the name of which freedom are you doing this?" Erdogan said in a speech at the Mediterranean Games, an international sports event being held in Mersin.

"You should teach them a lesson at the ballot box ... You will go from door to door, house to house and work hard."

Still by far Turkey's most popular politician, Erdogan has pressed ahead with government business as usual despite a week of the fiercest political protests for decades.

Earlier, addressing crowds at Adana airport en route to the Games, he was defiant. His AK Party has ruled out early elections and senior party officials said they may call their own public meetings in Istanbul and Ankara next week.

"My beloved brothers, we're walking towards a better Turkey. Don't allow those who attempt to plant divisive seeds to do so," he said from on top of a bus emblazoned with his picture and his AK Party's slogan, "Big Country, Big Power".

Tens of thousands massed again in Taksim, where riot police backed by helicopters and armoured vehicles first clashed with protesters a week ago, some chanting for Erdogan to resign.

What began as a campaign against government plans to build over Gezi Park in the square spiralled into an unprecedented display of public anger over the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.

Police fired teargas and water cannon at protesters night after night in Istanbul and Ankara last week, in clashes that have left three dead and close to 5,000 injured.

The organisers of the initial protests in Taksim, calling themselves Taksim Solidarity, repeated their call for the redevelopment plans to be abandoned, police use of teargas to be banned, those responsible for police violence to be dismissed and bans on demonstrations to be lifted.

"The demands are obvious. We call on government to take account of the reaction (on the street), act responsibly and fulfil demands being expressed by millions of people everyday," the group said in a statement.

SHOW OF STRENGTH

Tens of thousands also gathered in Ankara airport for the prime minister's return after a week that has seen him travel on an official business to North Africa before returning to Istanbul.

"Erdogan we are beside you with our hearts and bodies," chanted crowds at Ankara airport, waving red Turkish flags.

Erdogan has made clear he has no intention of stepping aside, pointing to his AK Party's rising share of the vote in the past three elections, and has no clear rivals inside the party or out.

He has enacted many democratic reforms, taming a military that toppled four governments in four decades, starting entry talks with the European Union and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a three-decade-old war.

But in recent years, critics say his style, always forceful and emotional, has become authoritarian.

Media have come under pressure, journalists have been imprisoned, opponents have been arrested over alleged coup plots, and moves such as restrictions on alcohol sales have unsettled secular middle-class Turks who are sensitive to any encroachment of religion on their daily lives.