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Turkey PM due home to face protesters

06 June 2013, 11:31

Istanbul - Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was due back in Turkey on Thursday to face thousands of angry demonstrators calling for him to quit, as violence flared between the protesters and his supporters.

Away for four days on an official trip, Erdogan has defied the protesters who are against the conservative policies of his Islamic-rooted AKP party, dismissing them as "extremists" and saying everything would calm down before he returned.

But a nationwide wave of protests have intensified, with doctors reporting 4 000 injured as police tried to quell the rallies in major cities with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon.

Fresh clashes broke out in the capital Ankara overnight but Istanbul, where the unrest started on 31 May, was relatively calm after six nights of unrest.

Crowds of protesters including striking workers marched on Wednesday in Istanbul and Ankara in a sea of red and white union flags, drumming and yelling for Erdogan to resign.

The prime minister was expected back on Thursday evening from Tunisia, the last stop on his four-day tour of North Africa, but the precise timing and airport of entry remained to be confirmed.

No need for show of power

Opposition to him is intense, but the 59-year-old has won three elections in a row and gained almost 50% of votes in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth in recent years.

The pro-AKP half of Turkey has remained largely silent in the past week of unrest, but CNN-Turk television reported on Thursday that several hundred people attacked a group of 25 youths who staged an anti-government protest in the Black Sea port of Rize.

In a hint that the wave of outrage could become two-sided, deputy prime minister Huseyin Celik urged AKP supporters not to flock to the airport to welcome Erdogan back so as not to inflame tensions.

"The prime minister does not need a show of power," he told a local television channel.

But Erdogan said last Sunday: "If they want to organise gatherings, if it's a social movement, well, when they gather 20 people I'll bring 200 000.

"When 100 000 of them meet, I'll mobilise a million supporters of my party."

Two dead

In Rize some of the anti-government protesters were reportedly hospitalised, but their condition was unclear.

A heavy-handed response to a peaceful demonstration in Istanbul last week sparked nationwide protests denouncing Erdogan, in power at the head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002.

Two people have been killed in the seven days of unrest nationwide, according to doctors and officials.

The national doctors' union has said more than 4 000 had been injured, 43 of them seriously.

The latest government estimate stands at about 300 injured.

Turkey, while acknowledging some police excesses, has hit back at criticism of its handling of the crisis, a Turkish foreign ministry source told AFP on Wednesday.

Allies concerned

The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had told US Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone call on Tuesday: "Turkey is not a second-class democracy."

Western allies of Turkey - a key strategic partner of the United States in the region - have voiced concern in recent days over the police violence.

Davutoglu assured Kerry an investigation was under way into the police response.

The US State Department responded later saying that it did not consider Turkey a "second-class democracy".

The tough police action has inflamed Turkey's protest movement, drawing in labour unions that represent hundreds of thousands of people.

Erdogan's critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian. They have accused him of seeking to force conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but constitutionally secular nation.

Upcoming elections

In the premier's absence, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Tuesday apologised to wounded protesters and promised that the government had "learnt its lesson".

He met with representatives of some of the protesters, who urged him to sack the police chiefs in cities where officers had used excessive force and to ban the use of tear gas against protesters.

But his gestures did not calm the protests, which have thrown up the biggest challenge to Erdogan's decade-long leadership.

"Erdogan needs to apologise, resign and go to court for the things he has done, for the excessive force," said Tansu Tahincioglu, a 26-year-old web entrepreneur, at a demonstration in Istanbul on Wednesday.

Sitting at the crossroads of East and West, Turkey has long aspired to join the European Union, which sets strict requirements on human rights for prospective members.

Erdogan has told protesters they should wait to express their views in elections next year, when observers expect him to run for president.



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