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Defiant Turkish prime minister accuses protesters of wanting to 'burn and destroy'

Aris Messinis/AFP - Getty Images

Demonstrators waving Turkish flags shout slogans against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest on Taksim Square in Istanbul Thursday.

TUNIS/ISTANBUL - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday denounced those behind a week of violent demonstrations, saying he would not allow people to "burn and destroy."

Speaking during a visit to Tunisia, Erdogan vowed to press ahead with plans for construction in an Istanbul park which triggered the unrest across the country.

Three people have been killed and more than 4,000 injured in demonstrations that have seen police fire tear gas at angry crowds.

Erdogan, out of the country for days on a tour of North Africa but due to return late Thursday, has consistently maintained a hard line in public comments since the unrest began, which the protesters say has poured fuel on the fire.

In Thursday's remarks, he said "terror groups" - including one that claimed responsibility for a February 1 bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara - were manipulating the crowds. Seven foreigners were among those arrested, he said.

"If you say: 'I will hold a meeting and burn and destroy,' we will not allow that," he told reporters after meeting his Tunisian counterpart. "We are against the majority dominating the minority and we cannot tolerate the opposite."

Nevertheless, by confining his comments to a group of protesters, Erdogan sounded arguably softer in tone than before he left for North Africa at the start of the week, when he described the demonstrators in blanket terms as looters.

What began as a campaign against the redevelopment of a leafy Istanbul park has grown into an unprecedented show of defiance against the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.

Police backed by armored vehicles have clashed with the protesters night after night, while thousands have massed peacefully in recent days on Taksim Square and the adjoining Gezi Park, where the demonstrations first began.

A policeman who fell from a bridge in the southern city of Adana while chasing protesters died of his injuries, Turkish television stations reported -- the third death in the protests.

AK Party Deputy Chairman Huseyin Celik called on members not to welcome Erdogan home at Istanbul airport to avoid stirring trouble. "The prime minister does not need a show of strength," Celik said in a television interview.

Anti-government protesters camp out in an Istanbul park after another night of violent clashes with police. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

At Taksim, protesters remained defiant. "We have the momentum, with people like me going to work every day and coming back to attend the protests," said Cetin, a 29-year-old civil engineer who declined to give his surname because he works for a company close to the government.

"We should keep coming here to protest until we really feel we've achieved something," he said, one of thousands gathered on Taksim Square until late into the night.

Protesters are of a variety of political stripes, including far leftists, soft nationalists, environmentalists and secular Turks, and their numbers at Taksim have swollen at points to more than an estimated 100,000.

Erdogan said they included the outlawed organization behind the U.S. Embassy suicide bombing that also killed a Turkish security guard. The outlawed Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front, said it was behind the U.S. Embassy bombing earlier this year.