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Erdogan hits back at criticism – Thousands of supporters greet PM at airport

ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his wife Emne and daughter Sumeye are greeted by supporters upon arrival at Ataturk International Airport yesterday. —AFP

ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his wife Emne and daughter Sumeye are greeted by supporters upon arrival at Ataturk International Airport yesterday. —AFP

ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday his Islamic-rooted government was open to “democratic demands” and hit back at EU criticism of his handling of a week of deadly unrest. Amid international condemnation over rights abuses in the unrest, European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule told Erdogan that excessive police force “has no place” in a democracy and urged a “swift and transparent” probe into the abuses in Turkey, a longtime EU hopeful. In response, Erdogan said he was against violence and accused European allies of double standards. “In any European country, whenever there is a violent protest against a demolition project like this, believe me, those involved face a harsher response,” the premier said at an Istanbul conference attended by the EU official. Turkey’s protests began when police cracked down heavily on a peaceful campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park, spiralling into nationwide anti-government demos.

“What we are against is terrorism, violence, vandalism and actions that threaten others for the sake of freedoms,” Erdogan said. “I’m open-hearted to anyone with democratic demands.” Thousands of cheering supporters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) welcomed the premier back from an overseas trip in the early hours, their first public show of strength since the anti-government trouble erupted. In a rousing speech at the airport, Erdogan called for “an immediate end to the demonstrations” and hinted that he would act against further defiance. Undeterred, protesters waving banners and blowing whistles continued to pack Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests, for an eighth day.

Turkey’s key strategic ally the United States and other Western powers have expressed concern about the police’s use of tear gas and water cannon on the demonstrators, in clashes that have injured thousands and led to three deaths. Yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined calls for the Turkish government to renounce violence, saying she was “counting on the fact that these problems will be discussed with the youth of the country”. But in a reassuring sign for Turkey’s reputation on the international stage, the European Union’s Fule, speaking at the same conference as Erdogan, said the EU was sticking by the country’s bid to join the bloc. “Let me... call on Turkey not to give up on its values of freedom and fundamental rights. And let me assure you that we, on our side, have no intention to give up on Turkey’s EU accession,” Fule told the premier in a televised gathering.

In Istanbul, pockets of protesters, some singing and blowing whistles, continued to pack Taksim Square. The atmosphere was calm and many voiced determination to press on with their action. “Nobody wants to go home. Everybody wants freedom,” said 22-year-old student Sertac Selvi as he helped a new arrival pitch a tent in nearby Gezi Park. “People will go on coming.” Supporters of Erdogan and his AKP party had stayed mainly silent as the protests raged, but they cut loose yesterday, flocking to the airport in a sea of red and white Turkish flags to welcome him home. “We will die for you, Erdogan,” they chanted, threatening the liberal demonstrators with the refrain: “Let us go and crush them all.” Flanked by his wife and top government ministers, the 59-year-old premier praised the supporters for their restraint so far, but encouraged them to “go home”. The nationwide unrest has left three people dead - two young protesters and a policeman, according to officials and doctors. The national doctors’ union says 4,785 people have been injured in clashes at the nationwide protests, 48 of them severely.

Erdogan has been voted into office three times in a row since 2002 at the head of the AKP, amid strong economic growth but the protests represent the biggest challenge yet to his rule. His critics accuse him of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation. The Istanbul stock market fell 1.2 percent at the start of trading Friday, after closing nearly five percent down Thursday. Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek lashed out at the foreign press, accusing them in televised comments of giving a “bad image” of Turkey and its economy. He admitted however there was some “tension” on financial markets due to the unrest. —AFP

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This article was published on 07/06/2013