Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Thursday to go ahead with the construction of the Ottoman barracks in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, defying angry protesters who continue to rally against the plan for day.
Speaking to reporters in Tunis after a meeting with his Tunisian counterpart, Erdogan hinted at foreign hands in the protests against his rule, saying the reasons for the violence can’t be environmental.
He said seven foreigners were arrested in Istanbul, pointing out that they lack diplomatic passports.
Erdogan urged protesters to abide by the law and demonstrate in designated areas, dismissing them as “extremists” and saying everything would calm down before he returned.
But the mass unrest has only intensified in his absence, with doctors reporting thousands of injured as police tried to quell the rallies in major cities with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon, according to AFP.
A Turkish policeman died in hospital Wednesday hours after being injured in a fall while chasing anti-government protesters in the southern city of Adana, the private NTV news channel said.
His death marks the first police fatality in seven days of clashes, with two young male protesters killed earlier.
Fresh violence broke out in the capital Ankara overnight but Istanbul, where the unrest started on May 31, was relatively calm after six nights of unrest.
Protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park next to Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests, said they were bracing for Erdogan’s return from Tunisia on Thursday evening.
“I’m afraid because I don’t know what he will do,” chemistry student Ezgi Ozbilgin, 24, who camped out in the park overnight, told AFP.
“AKP supporters are like sheep. If Erdogan says go fight, they will fight. If he says stay, they will stay.”
Erdogan earlier said that he could “mobilise a million supporters of my party” if he had to.
Thousands of striking union members joined the anti-government protests on Wednesday, marching in Istanbul and Ankara in a sea of red and white union flags, drumming and yelling for Erdogan to resign.
Opposition to him is intense, but the 59-year-old has won three elections in a row and gained almost 50 percent 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, Erdogan’s home town.
In a hint that the wave of outrage could become two-sided, Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik has urged AKP supporters not to flock to the airport to welcome Erdogan back to avoid inflaming tensions.
“The prime minister does not need a show of power,” he told a local television channel.
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.
His critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian. They have accused him of seeking to force conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation.
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