Erdogan talks tough on return to Istanbul, but protests now in 78 cities
Prime minister greeted by 10,000 supporters, but anti-government protests have spread from Istanbul to 78 cities during his overseas trip
Turkey's prime minister took a combative stance on his closely watched return to the country, telling supporters who thronged to greet him that protests sweeping the country must end.
In the first strong show of support since anti-government protests erupted last week, more than 10,000 supporters cheered Recep Tayyip Erdogan outside an Istanbul airport early yesterday.
Erdogan delivered a fiery speech on his return from a four-day trip to North Africa. "These protests that are bordering on illegality must come to an end as of now," he said.
However, at one stage he appeared to soften his stand, saying he was open to "democratic demands" raised by demonstrators.
"What we are against is terrorism, violence, vandalism and actions that threaten others for the sake of freedoms," Erdogan said in a televised conference in Istanbul. "I'm open-hearted to anyone with democratic demands."
European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule told Erdogan at the same Istanbul conference that excessive police force against demonstrators has no place in a democracy.
Tens of thousands of protesters have held demonstrations that have spread to dozens of cities across Turkey, sparked by the violent police reaction last Friday to what started out as a small protest against a plan to redevelop Istanbul's central Taksim Square.
Since then, three people have died - two protesters and a policeman - and thousands have been injured. One protester is on life support in Ankara.
Protesters from all walks of life have occupied the square and its park, objecting to what they say is Erdogan's increasingly autocratic and arrogant manner. Turks have been awaiting Erdogan's words on his return, seeing them as a signal of whether the demonstrations would fizzle or rage on.
Erdogan at times was almost drowned out by his supporters, part of the base that has helped him win three landslide elections. "God is Great," they chanted, and soon moved on to slogans referring specifically to the protesters in Taksim Square.
"Let us go, let us smash them," they shouted. "Istanbul is here, where are the looters?"
Erdogan had initially referred to the protesters as looters and troublemakers, while acknowledging that excessive police force might have been used and promising it would be investigated.
Erdogan's speech appeared at first to be an attempt to strike a unifying note. "They say I am the prime minister of only 50 per cent. It's not true. We have served the whole of the 76 million from the east to the west," he said.
"Together we are Turkey. Together we are brothers. We have never endeavoured to break hearts. We are in favour of mending hearts."
But he soon became more combative. "We have never been for building tension and polarisation. But we cannot applaud brutality," he said.
Before Erdogan's return, Bosporus University political scientist Koray Caliskan said he was maintaining a hard line because "until now Erdogan had always gained support by increasing the tension in the country".
"Turkey is absolutely at a crossroads. Erdogan won't be able to point at Turkey as a model of democracy any more," he said.
Over the past week the demonstrations have spread to 78 cities, with protesters venting their feelings about what they perceive to be Erdogan's increasing arrogance.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse