By Jonathon Burch and Umit Bektas, ISTANBUL-ANKARA (Reuters) – Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Turkey’s main secular opposition party on Sunday of stirring a wave of anti-government protests, as tens of thousands regrouped in Istanbul and Ankara after a lull and trouble flared again in the capital.
Police used tear gas on protesters in Ankara but the clashes were relatively minor compared with major violence in Turkey’s biggest cities on the previous two days.
Calling the protesters “a few looters”, Erdogan said he would press ahead with redeveloping Istanbul’s Taksim Square, a project which provoked the demonstrations that have widened into a broader show of defiance against his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan singled out the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – set up in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who founded Turkey’s modern secular state – for attack over a dispute he described as ideological.
“We think that the main opposition party which is making resistance calls on every street is provoking these protests,” Erdogan said on Turkish television.
Turkey’s fiercest anti-government unrest for years erupted when trees were torn down at a park in Taksim Square under government plans to construct a new mosque and rebuild a replica Ottoman-era barracks.
“This reaction is no longer about the ripping out 12 trees. This is based on ideology,” said Erdogan, whose conservative vision for the nation has angered more liberal Turks. Referring to the planned mosque, he added: “Obviously I will not ask for permission for this from the head of CHP or a few looters.”
Tens of thousands gathered on Sunday after a calmer night in Taksim Square, which saw two days of clashes between protesters and riot police backed by armored vehicles and helicopters.
The atmosphere was more festive with some chanting for Erdogan to resign and others singing and dancing. There was little obvious police presence.
In Ankara’s downtown Kizilay district, however, police used tear gas after a few thousand people chanted anti-government slogans and blocked traffic.
On Sunday rain appeared to keep the crowds away from Taksim Square initially, but this did not dampen the spirit of the protesters whose numbers later swelled.
“We will stay until the end,” said Akin, who works in motor trade and has been in Taksim for the past four days. “We are not leaving. The only answer now is for this government to fall. We are tired of this oppressive government constantly putting pressure on us.”
There were more than 90 separate demonstrations around the country on Friday and Saturday, officials said. More than 1,000 people have been injured in Istanbul and several hundred more in Ankara, according to medical staff.
The ferocity of the police response in Istanbul shocked Turks, as well as tourists caught up in the unrest in one of the world’s most visited destinations. It has drawn rebukes from the United States, European Union and international rights groups.
Helicopters fired tear gas canisters into residential neighborhoods and police used teargas to try to smoke people out of buildings. Footage on YouTube showed one protester being hit by an armored police truck as it charged a barricade.
Erdogan has overseen a transformation in Turkey during his decade in power, turning its once crisis-prone economy into the fastest-growing in Europe.
On Sunday, he addressed critics who called him a “dictator”.
“We have carried Turkey into a new era… If they call someone who is a servant of his country, then I have nothing to say to them,” he said.
Among Turks in general Erdogan remains by far the most popular politician, but critics point to what they see as his authoritarianism and religiously conservative meddling in private lives in the secular republic.
Tighter restrictions on alcohol sales and warnings against public displays of affection in recent weeks have also provoked protests. Concern that government policy is allowing Turkey to be dragged into the conflict in neighboring Syria by the West has also led to peaceful demonstrations
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