Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his government opposes violence and is open to “democratic demands” raised by demonstrators whose mass protests have rocked the country.
“What we are against is terrorism, violence, vandalism and actions that threaten others for the sake of freedoms,” Erdogan said in a televised conference in Istanbul on Friday. “I’m open-hearted to anyone with democratic demands.”
Appealing to activists campaigning to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park, a campaign that sparked the nationwide unrest, he urged those with environmental concerns to join him.
“I know what environmentalism means,” the former Istanbul mayor said. “Being an environmentalist is not vandalism. Being an environmentalist is not killing people.”
Meanwhile, leaders of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are set to meet on Saturday in Istanbul.
It is the first time the AKP’s decision-making body will have met in there.
Doctors say thousands of people have been injured as police have fired tear-gas and water cannon at stone-throwing protesters across the country.
Early on Friday morning, Erdogan was greeted 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 demonstrations.
“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.
European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule told Erdogan at the same Istanbul conference that excessive police force against demonstrators “has no place” in a democracy.
Many of Turkey’s Western allies have condemned his government’s handling of the demonstrations, but the defiant premier hit back at his critics.
“Similar protests have taken place in Britain, France, Germany and bigger ones in Greece. All of them are members of the European Union,” he said, likening Turkey’s demonstrations to the Occupy Wall Street movement that sprang up in the US in 2011.
The EU, he said, also had a record of human rights problems, noting discrimination against some ethnic groups, including Roma, also known as Gypsies.
The trouble in Turkey broke out a week ago when police violently dispersed demonstrators opposed to the redevelopment of Gezi Park.
It then spread across the country, with riot police firing tear gas and water cannon at thousands of protesters calling for Erdogan’s resignation.
The protests are the fiercest challenge yet to Erdogan’s decade-long rule.