Thousands join Turkey protests defying PM's call to end unrest

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the streets of Turkish cities on Saturday, challenging Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's call to end their civil uprising with a chorus of angry chants and a shower of red flares.

The government said the protests were "under control" even as the largest crowds yet packed every inch of Istanbul's Taksim Square, the epicentre of nine days of nationwide unrest.

As the sun set over Taksim, which has seen no police presence since officers pulled out of the site last Saturday, fans from rival football teams Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray united in the square. They set off red flares to loud cheers from the crowd.

"I have never experienced this friendship, this solidarity among Turks before," said Fenerbahce supporter Rustu Ozmen. "We have to keep coming, we can't give up because Erdogan hasn't quit yet," the 29-year-old lawyer added.

In the capital Ankara, hundreds of riot police used tear gas and water cannon late Saturday to disperse some 5,000 demonstrators from the central Kizilay Square.

The police pursued the protesters who took refuge in side streets off the square, which is the nerve centre of the Turkish capital. Several people were injured, television reported.

The political turmoil erupted after police cracked down heavily on a small campaign to save Gezi Park from demolition, spiralling into nationwide protests against Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.

Police have used tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have left three dead and thousands injured, tarnishing Turkey's image as a model of Islamic democracy.

Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik, speaking after a meeting between the premier and top AKP officials, downplayed the rallies that flew in the face of Erdogan's demand on Friday to immediately end the protests.

"The process is under the control of the government, and is becoming normalised and increasingly in line with common sense," he told reporters in Istanbul.

He also dismissed any talk of calling early elections to resolve the crisis. "You don't decide on early elections because people are marching on the streets."

In a bid to calm tensions, Istanbul's mayor Kadir Topbas on Saturday said the park would not be turned into a shopping mall, as some feared.

But the reconstruction of Ottoman-era military barracks at the site would go ahead because it "was part of our election promises", he said, echoing earlier comments by the premier.

The protesters in Gezi Park, who say they have seen their civil rights and freedoms steadily erode under Mr Erdogan, rejected the olive branch.

"A week ago, I could never imagine myself sleeping out on the streets of Istanbul," said 22-year-old Aleyna, wrapped up under a blanket with a stray kitten, pointing to her dirty clothes. "Now I don't know how I can ever go back." Mr Erdogan has faced international condemnation for his handling of the unrest in Turkey, a Nato member and key strategic partner in the region for the United States and other Western allies.

The EU on Friday called for a "swift" probe into police violence in the clashes, but Mr Erdogan hit back, saying those involved in a similar protest would in any European country "face a harsher response".

The national doctors' union says the civil unrest has left two protesters and a policeman dead while almost 4,800 people have been injured across Turkey.

Critics accuse Mr Erdogan, in power since 2002, of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation, and of pushing grandiose urban development projects at the expense of local residents.

Opposition to Turkey's combative leader is intense, but the 59-year-old is the country's most popular politician, with his AKP winning three elections in a row and gaining almost 50 per cent of votes in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.

Local and presidential elections are scheduled for 2014 and the AKP said Saturday it would launch its first campaign rally in Ankara on June 15, followed by one in Istanbul the next day, according to local media.

The rallies are likely to draw tens of thousands of Erdogan supporters.

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