Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for an immediate end to protests against his rule.
The prime minister was greeted early on Friday morning by thousands of supporters waving Turkish flags and chanting “We will die for you, Erdogan” and “Let’s go crush them all”, as they staged their first show of strength after keeping largely silent during seven days of violent anti-government demonstrations across the country.
“I call for an immediate end to the demonstrations, which have turned into unlawfulness and vandalism,” Erdogan said in a speech at the Istanbul airport where he had just returned from a North Africa trip.
Flanked by his wife and prominent government ministers, the prime minister praised his supporters for their restraint in recent days, but stressed that he was “the servant” of every citizen in the country.
“You have remained calm, mature and showed common sense,” he said. “We’re all going to go home from here … You’re not the type of people to bang pots and pans on the streets.”
Istanbul Municipality, ruled by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), extended the metro hours until 4am (local time) to allow his supporters to commute to and from the airport more easily.
Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from Ankara, said party activists have been communicating via text messages and had told supporters to stay at home and to remain calm.
She said that even though the deputy prime minister had requested them not to go to the airport to receive Erdogan, McNaught was told that activists received text messages saying that a bus would be present to collect them.
“A growing polarisation is building among the two sides,” McNaught said.
Earlier, tens of thousands of angry anti-government protesters again packed cities across the country chanting “Tayyip resign”, others singing and dancing. In Ankara’s Kugulu Park, thousands chanted anti-government slogans, sang the national anthem and swigged on beer.
The nationwide unrest, fuelled by anger against what protesters see as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, claimed a third life with the death of a policeman, media said.
Erdogan has so far responded with defiance to the biggest challenge of his decade-long rule, and further enraged protesters on Thursday by pledging to press ahead with the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, whose conservation fight sparked the protests.
Speaking in Tunis ahead of his return, Erdogan reiterated his claims that extremists and foreign agitators were to blame for the violence.
“Among the protesters, there are extremists, some of them implicated in terrorism,” including some who were in Taksim Square where the trouble broke out last week, he told reporters.
‘Fate of this resistance’
Police backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters have clashed with groups of protesters night after night, leaving three dead and about 4,000 injured, while thousands of Erdogan’s opponents have massed peacefully in Taksim, surrounded by barricades of torn-up paving stones and street signs.
“It’s all up to Erdogan and what he says right now. He will decide the fate of this resistance, whether it will calm [down] or escalate,” said Mehmet Polat, 42, a ship captain who has not worked all week, coming instead to protest at Taksim.
“These people have been here for days, he has to understand it is for a reason,” he said.
The protesters are of a variety of political stripes, including far leftists, nationalists, environmentalists and secular Turks, and their numbers at Taksim have increased at points to more than an estimated 100,000.
But despite the unrest, 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 there are no obvious rivals inside or outside his party.
Still, he faces a challenge in calming the protests without appearing to lose face.