Turkish PM to protesters: Stop now

PM Tayyip Erdogan made the comments before a sea of flag-waving supporters at Istanbul airport.

Protestors clash with Turkish riot policemen during a protest against the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park on 31 May 2013. Picture: AFP

ISTANBUL - Prime Minister 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, centre of the protests now occupied by thousands around the clock, some chanted "Tayyip resign" as they watched a broadcast of the address.

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 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.

Speaking from an open-topped 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-old rule.

"However, no-one has the right to attack us through this. May Allah preserve our fraternity and unity," said Erdogan, who denies accusations he seeks to replace a 90-year-old secular order with Islamic rule. "The secret to our success is not tension and polarisation."

"The police are doing their duty. These protests, which have turned into vandalism and utter lawlessness, must end immediately," Erdogan told the crowd to loud cheers.

CLEAR CHALLENGE

He gave no indication of any immediate plans to remove the makeshift protest camps that have appeared on Taksim Square and a park in the capital, Ankara.

Erdogan has pressed many democratic reforms, taming a military that had toppled four governments in four decades, starting entry talks with the European Union, reining in police rights abuses and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a three-decades-old war that has cost 40,000 lives.

Per capita income has tripled in nominal terms and business boomed at home and beyond Turkish frontiers.

But in recent years critics say his style, always forceful and emotional, has become authoritarian.

Media have come under pressure, and arrests of military and other figures over alleged coup plots as well as moves such as alcohol sale restrictions have unsettled especially secular middle classes sensitive to any encroachment of religion on their daily lives.

Sources close to the AK Party Erdogan founded in 2001, and which only a year later crushed traditional secular parties at elections, suggest a sense of siege within the leadership, with influential if disparate forces keen to remove Erdogan the man irrespective of policies or mandate.

Erdogan has made clear he has no intention of stepping aside, pointing to 50 percent of the vote at the last election.

Erdogan projects himself in the image of Ozal and Menderes.

Erdogan's chief adviser Yalcin Akdogan saw a concurrence of domestic and foreign forces who wanted to see Erdogan humbled.

Supporters of Erdogan, who enjoys strong support in Turkey's conservative heartland, chanted "Tayyip" and "Don't Test our Patience", waving the Turkish flag - a white crescent moon and star on a red background - and the AKP banner, the image of a light bulb.

He was due to meet a senior EU official later.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologised for the police violence this week, after Erdogan had left for North Africa.

A protest that began with activists resisting a plan to develop Taksim has ballooned. Among the demonstrators now are nationalists, socialists, students, unionists, radical leftists and middle class professionals, many of whom may have benefited from a booming economy but remain sceptical of Erdogan.