Turkey's Prime Minister calls for an end to the deadly protests that have spread across the country in the past week but demonstrators are asking for change. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.
ISTANBUL -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew back to a Turkey rocked by days of anti-government unrest on Friday and declared before a sea of flag-waving supporters at Istanbul airport: "These protests must end immediately."
"No power but Allah can stop Turkey's rise," he told thousands who gathered in the early hours to greet him in the first pro-Erdogan rally since demonstrations began a week ago.
At Istanbul's Taksim Square, the center of the protests and now occupied by thousands around the clock, some chanted "Tayyip resign" as they watched a broadcast of the address. In the capital, Ankara, the Kugulu Park echoed with anti-government slogans, while protesters danced or sang the national anthem.
Kayhan Ozer / Anadolu Agency via EPA
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters in Istanbul on Friday upon his return to a protest-rocked country. "These protests must end immediately," he declared in front of the crowd.
Speaking from an open-top bus at the airport, his wife at his side, Erdogan acknowledged police might have used excessive force in crushing a small demonstration against a building project last Friday -- the action that triggered nationwide protests against his 10-year rule.
"However, no one has the right to attack us through this. May Allah preserve our fraternity and unity. We will have nothing to do with fighting and vandalism. ... The secret to our success is not tension and polarization," Erdogan told the crowd.
"The police are doing their duty. These protests, which have turned into vandalism and utter lawlessness, must end immediately," he added.
He gave no indication of any immediate plans to remove the makeshift protest camps that have appeared on Taksim Square and a park in Ankara. But the gatherings mark a clear challenge to his declarations.
Western governments including the United States, which sees Turkey as a key NATO ally in the Middle East, bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria, have expressed concern about heavy-handed police action.
Washington in particular has projected Turkey under Erdogan as an example of a Muslim democracy that could be emulated by other countries in the region, such as Egypt.
Erdogan set his sights also on financial institutions and markets, which have fallen on the troubles.
"We have come to this level despite the interest rate lobby," he said. "The interest rate lobby thinks they can threaten us by entering into speculations in the stock exchange. They should know we will not let them abuse the nation's wealth."
Supporters of Erdogan, who enjoys strong support in Turkey's conservative heartland, chanted "Don't rest our patience" and "Istanbul is here" and waved the Turkish flag -- a white crescent moon and star on a red background -- and the banner of Erdogan's AKP party, the image of a light bulb.
Erdogan swept to power in 2002 shortly after founding the AKP from conservative Islamists, nationalists and center-right elements. In a decade he has transformed the economy, tripling per capita income, introduced some rights reforms and reining in an army that had toppled four governments in 40 years.
But critics say more recently he has become increasingly authoritarian and has pursued by stealth an Islamist agenda challenging nine decades of state secularism, something he denies. They accuse him of arrogance born of three election victories, the last built on a 50 percent vote.
Erdogan has no clear rivals inside the AKP or outside, where the opposition, both on the streets and in parliament, is fragmented.
Among the demonstrators are nationalists, leftists, students, unionists and middle-class professionals who accuse Erdogan of adopting an authoritarian style of government.
The government says militant leftists associated with terrorist attacks have also been involved in skirmishes with police that have spread to dozens of cities.
Six newspapers carried the same headline backing Erdogan on Friday: "We'll lay down our lives for democratic demands" -- a comment he made to reporters in Tunisia.
The Leftist Sol's headline read: "The Deaf Sultan," accusing Erdogan of refusing to understand protesters' demands.
At Taksim, the mood remained defiant.
"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 had not worked all week, coming instead to protest at Taksim. "These people have been here for days. He has to understand.”
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