Erdogan defiant in face of protests in Turkey

AFP-JIJI, AP

Turkey’s leaders faced a fourth day of protests Monday after demonstrators clashed with police firing tear gas, in the biggest outburst of anger at the Islamist-rooted government since it took power more than a decade ago.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained defiant in the face of the demonstrations, dismissing the protesters as a “bunch of vandals” and was due to leave on a four-day official trip abroad later in the day.

Istanbul’s main Taksim Square, where the protests first erupted, was relatively quiet early Monday as people started the first workday since tensions boiled over on Friday.

But protesters’ banners and barriers of scrap metal remained, suggesting they would return to resume days of demonstrations that have by some accounts left hundreds injured nationwide.

Overnight, police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters who marched on Erdogan’s offices in Istanbul and in the capital, Ankara.

“Dictator, resign! . . . We will resist until we win,” yelled the crowds, who hurled stones and lit fires in the streets.

Erdogan has dismissed the protesters, but admitted “mistakes” by the police in their initial response.

He was due to leave the country Monday for a four-day tour of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, an official in his office said.

Police had withdrawn on Saturday from Taksim Square, the hub of demonstrations that started over an unpopular building project nearby and boiled over into a general protest against the government.

The flash point shifted late Sunday to the Besiktas area north of Taksim, near Erdogan’s Istanbul base. In Ankara, police dispersed thousands of demonstrators and incidents continued into early Monday.

Interior Minister Muammer Guler said earlier that more than 1,700 people had been arrested in the unrest nationwide, though most have since been released.

A doctors’ union in Ankara said before the latest clashes that more than 400 civilians had been injured there, including some with serious head wounds.

Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have denounced as excessive the police reaction and Turkey’s Western allies have appealed for restraint.

The unrest began as a local outcry against plans to redevelop Gezi Park, a rare green spot near Taksim, but after a heavy-handed police response the protests spread to other districts — and then to dozens of cities across Turkey.

Accused by critics of an increasingly conservative and authoritarian agenda in the predominantly Muslim but secular state, Erdogan’s government is facing the biggest protests since it took power in 2002.Some protesters have compared Erdogan to a sultan and denounced him as a dictator. Scrambling to show he was unbowed and appealing to a large base of conservative Turks who support him, Erdogan delivered two speeches Sunday and appeared in a television interview.

With Turkish media otherwise giving scant reports about the protests, many turned to social media outlets for information on the unrest.

“There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” Erdogan said. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”

Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has boosted economic growth and raised its international profile. But he has been a divisive figure at home, with his government recently passing legislation curbing the sale of alcohol and taking a strong stand against the Syrian regime that some believe has put security at risk.

Erdogan on Sunday renewed his call for an end to the disturbances.

“If you love this country, if you love Istanbul, do not fall for these games,” he said in televised comments.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has won three successive parliamentary elections, winning almost 50 percent of the vote the last time around in 2011.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned in a Twitter message: “The continuation of these protests . . . will bring no benefits but will harm the reputation of our country which is admired both in the region and the world.”

The prime minister had insisted Saturday that his government would press ahead with the park redevelopment, although he said it may not include a shopping mall, as protesters fear.

On Sunday however, he confirmed a plan to build a mosque on Taksim Square — a sensitive issue as he faces accusations from critics of trying to impose an Islamic agenda.

“If they call someone who has served the people a ‘dictator,’ I have nothing to say,” Erdogan said in an address to a group representing migrants from the Balkans. “My only concern has been to serve my country.”

In another speech delivered an hour later, Erdogan said: “I am not the master of the people. Dictatorship does not run in my blood or in my character. I am the servant of the people.”

Erdogan called the protests “ideological” and manipulated by an opposition “unable to beat (the government) at the ballot box.”

Alluding to his party’s strong base, Erdogan said he had the power to summon much larger numbers of his supporters at rallies. “Our supporters are calling and saying, ‘Are we going to stay silent?’ But I am urging calm,” he said in an interview with Haberturk television.

Erdogan reiterated that his government would not back away from plans to uproot trees at Taksim as part of his urban renovation plans for the area. In a statement that could cause more controversy, he also declared that a mosque would be built at Taksim.

Among the government moves to have caused anger is a recent law backed by Erdogan’s party that aims to restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol, but Erdogan on Sunday stood firm on the bill, which has been passed by Parliament and is awaiting presidential signature.

“Those who drink are alcoholics,” he said, before adding: “I don’t want to say everyone, but those who drink regularly.”

Hamdi, a protester in Ankara who gave only one name, said: “It’s not about the Gezi Park project anymore. It has become a movement against the government, which is interfering more and more in our private life.”