Turkish PM to press on with plans
Turkey's prime minister says he will go ahead with redevelopment plans that have sparked nationwide protests, in comments that could be decisive in determining whether the demonstrations fizzle out or rage on.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged that some Turks have been involved in the protests out of environmental concerns, but insisted that terrorist groups are involved in the unrest in a country seen as a democratic model for the Middle East. He was speaking at a news conference in Tunisia on the last leg of a four-day tour of North Africa,
It appeared unlikely that his comments would calm demonstrators. Protesters were gathering at an airport in Istanbul in anticipation of the prime minister's return home.
Mr Erdogan frequently spends weekends in Istanbul, rather than the capital Ankara. It was unclear whether he chose to land in Istanbul because he has a strong support base going back to his days as the city's mayor.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Turkey's cities in protests that began after police violently cracked down on demonstrators camping out to protest plans for a development in Istanbul's Taksim Square.
The protests quickly spiralled into an outpouring of rage directed at Mr Erdogan, who the demonstrators see as increasingly autocratic and uncompromising. Anger has grown at police for frequent use of tear gas and water cannons, and a human rights group says thousands of people have been injured.
In Tunisia, Mr 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, claiming that an outlawed left-wing militant group that carried out 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.
Mr Erdogan said the Islamic-rooted government had already apologised for the violent police crackdown on the Taksim sit-in, but insisted that tear gas was used everywhere in the world to break up protests. "Demands cannot be made through illegal means," he said. Mr Erdogan has insisted that democracy happens only at the ballot box, dismissing the demonstrators as an extremist fringe.
He indicated that the government would go ahead with the redevelopment plans in central Istanbul, insisting the plan would beautify the city, and would include the planting of trees and the construction of a modern theater and opera. He has earlier said the plans included the construction of a shopping mall.
A police officer was reported killed on Thursday while trying to subdue a protest in southern Turkey, bringing the death toll in a week of demonstrations to three. The officer died in a hospital after falling into an underpass under construction in Adana, on the Mediterranean coast. He was trying to break up protests there. Two protesters have been reported killed in the demonstrations in some 70 cities.