Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned the “burn and destroy” tactics of some of those involved in days of violent protests and promised to press ahead with plans for an Istanbul park which sparked the unrest.
Speaking on a visit to Tunisia yesterday, Mr Erdogan said “terror groups” were manipulating what had started as an environmental campaign, and claimed that seven foreigners were among those arrested.
“If you say: ‘I will hold a meeting and burn and destroy’, we will not allow that,” he said. “We are against the majority dominating the minority and we cannot tolerate the opposite.”
Erdogan said he had “love and respect” for protesters with environmental concerns.
“But as I told you earlier, some terrorist groups are involved,” he said. He claimed that a banned left-wing group linked to a suicide bomb attack on the US embassy in Ankara in February was also involved in the protests.
“They are involved. They have been caught in the streets and on social media,” he said.
By confining his comments to a group of protesters, Mr Erdogan appeared softer in tone than before he left for North Africa at the start of the week, when he described the demonstrators as looters.
Mr Erdogan now returns to Turkey to face demands that he apologises for a police crackdown during six days of protests in which three people have been killed and more than 4,000 injured in a dozen Turkish cities. He has also been urged to sack those who ordered the hard-line police response.
What began as a campaign against the redevelopment of a leafy Istanbul park has grown into an unprecedented show of defiance against the perceived authoritarianism of Mr Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.
Police backed by armoured vehicles have clashed with the protesters night after night, while thousands have massed peacefully in recent days on Taksim Square, where the demonstrations first began.
Yesterday Turkish television stations reported that a policeman, who had fallen from a bridge in the southern city of Adana while chasing protesters, had died of his injuries. His death is the third since the protests began.
In Taksim Square, protesters remained defiant. “We have the momentum, with people like me going to work every day and coming back to attend the protests,” said Cetin, a 29-year-old civil engineer who declined to give his surname because he works for a company close to the government.
“We should keep coming here to protest until we feel we’ve achieved something,” he said, one of thousands gathered on Taksim Square until late into the night.
Deputy premier Bulent Arinc, in charge while Mr Erdogan is away, has struck a conciliatory tone, apologising for the initial police crackdown on peaceful campaigners in Taksim’s Gezi Park and meeting a delegation of protesters in his Ankara office.
Despite the unrest, Mr Erdogan remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician, his assertive style and common touch resonating with the conservative Islamic heartland.
His AK Party has won an increasing share of the vote in three successive elections and holds around two thirds of the seats in parliament. A man who rarely bows to any opposition, he clearly has no intention of stepping down and no obvious rivals inside or outside his party.
But he, and those around him, face a challenge in calming the protests without appearing to lose face.
“Erdogan cannot backtrack now. It would mean defeat,” said Ali Aydin, 38, a car dealer in the Tophane neighbourhood of Istanbul, a conservative bastion in the mostly Bohemian district around Taksim Square. “Weakness would destroy the party.”