Turkish protesters poured back onto the streets Tuesday in defiance of their government’s plea to end days of deadly unrest, the biggest challenge yet to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decade-long rule.
Erdogan’s government won praise from the United States for apologising to protesters injured in the violence but the move did not appear to stem popular anger.
Protesters accuse Erdogan of imposing conservative Islamic reforms on the predominantly Muslim but constitutionally secular nation.
Bellowing, whistling crowds flooded Istanbul’s Taksim Square for a fifth night running, yelling defiance at Erdogan, who earlier dismissed protesters as “extremists” and “vandals”. He was in Algeria on the second day of a four-day official trip to north Africa.
“The vandals are here! Where is Tayyip?” yelled the crowd.
They repeated their charges that Erdogan, who has won three successive national elections, was imposing conservative Islamic reforms on the predominantly Muslim but constitutionally secular nation.
“If they step back, if they change something in Turkey, the conservatism and the things they’ve done, then maybe the crowd can go home,” said Didem Kul, a 24-year-old student on Taksim square.
“But we can’t go home without having a demonstration. And even if we go home, the feelings won’t change.”
Turkish pipe music and singing blared over speakers as the crowd clapped in a festive atmosphere that contrasted with the tense rallies of the past five days.
Even fans from rival football teams Besiktas and Fenerbahce joined arms, united in protest. Thousands also rallied in the capital Ankara.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc earlier apologised to protesters who were injured as the clashes erupted last week when police tear-gassed demonstrators at a peaceful rally against a plan to build on a Istanbul park.
“I apologise to those who were subject to violence because of their sensitivity for the environment,” he said, while adding that the apology excluded those whom the government accused of rioting.
“The government has learnt its lesson from what happened,” he added. “We do not have the right and cannot afford to ignore people. Democracies cannot exist without opposition.”
Two people have been killed in the clashes, officials and medics say, and rights groups say thousands have been injured while the government puts the figure at around 300.
Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took power in 2002, has accused the main opposition Republican People’s Party of having a hand in the protests.
— ‘The apology is just damage control’ —
The Turkish Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions (KESK) representing 240,000 employees launched a two-day strike on Tuesday.
Its spokesman Baki Cinar told AFP that schools had closed down but said it was too soon to assess the overall impact.
He rejected Arinc’s conciliatory move.
“The apology is just damage control and only because they know they are stuck,” Cinar said.
Another bigger union grouping, CISK, with 420,000 members, said it too would join the strike and demonstrations on Wednesday.
The United Nations joined Turkey’s key strategic ally the United States and other Western partners in voicing concern about reports of police violence and called for a full investigation into alleged rights abuses.
The White House praised the government’s move on Tuesday.
“We welcome the deputy prime minister’s comments apologising for excessive force, and we continue to welcome calls for these events to be investigated,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Turkey, a country of 75 million people, is an important ally of the United States in the region and has backed it notably in opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
Sitting at the crossroads of East and West, Turkey has long aspired to join the European Union, which sets strict requirements on human rights standards for prospective members.
Opponents have accused Erdogan of repressing critics, including journalists, minority Kurds and the military, and pushing conservative Islamic policies including religious education reforms and a law curbing the sale of alcohol.
Erdogan told protesters they should wait to express their views in elections next year, when observers expect him to run for president.
“For me, democracy comes from the ballot box,” he said, insisting the disturbances would calm down by the time he returns to Turkey on Thursday.
Italy said Tuesday that it considered the violence had not undermined Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union.
“Italy continues to firmly believe in Turkey’s European prospects and its essential role in terms of stability and security in the region,” Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said in a statement.
“We are confident that Turkey will overcome this difficult moment, proving itself to be a mature democracy,” she added.
The Istanbul stock market tumbled to close 10 percent lower on Monday but recovered by nearly five percent on Tuesday after Arinc’s comments.