Thousands at Istanbul airport cheer prime minister's return

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ISTANBUL -- Thousands of people thronged Istanbul's airport to cheer the return of the country's prime minister early Friday, the first extensive public show of support for him since anti-government protests erupted last week.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was returning from a four-day trip to north Africa after protests spiraled into dozens of cities around the country.

Speaking before leaving Tunisia to fly back to Istanbul, Mr. Erdogan attempted a balancing act. He appeared to soften his tone in an effort not to inflame protesters who see him as increasingly autocratic, while not conceding enough to appear weak to the base that has helped him win three landslide elections.

About 10,000 supporters swarmed the airport for his arrival, chanting "We are with you, Erdogan." Hundreds marched among the cars of traffic-clogged streets toward the airport, waving Turkish flags and chanting "Istanbul, don't sleep -- defend your leader."

Mr. Erdogan's reaction will be decisive in determining whether demonstrations fizzle or rage on. So far, a police officer and two protesters have died, and thousands have been injured in nearly a week of clashes with police.

Although he was greeted warmly at the airport, his comments don't appear to have swayed many of the thousands of protesters who thronged central Istanbul's Taksim Square for a sixth day Thursday. More than 10,000 others filled a busy street in a middle class area of Ankara. "I do not believe his sincerity," said protester Hazer Berk Buyukturca.

Turkey's main stock market revealed the fears that Mr. Erdogan's comments would do little to defuse the protesters, with the general price index plunging by 8 percent after his comments on concerns that continuing unrest would hit the country's economy.

In his comments in Tunisia, Mr. Erdogan acknowledged that some Turks were involved in the protests out of environmental concerns, and said he had "love and respect" for them.

"His messages were a lot softer than when he left. But they were not soft enough," said Hurriyet Newspaper political columnist Sukru Kucuksahin. "On the other hand, I don't think that the demonstrations will continue with such intensity forever."

The protests started last week over objections to Mr. Erdogan's plan to uproot Taksim Square's Gezi Park to make way for a replica of Ottoman barracks and a shopping mall. Extensive police use of tear gas and water cannons outraged many and sent thousands pouring into the square to support what had, until then, been a small protest.

Over the past week, demonstrations have spread to 78 cities, growing into public venting over what protesters perceive to be Mr. Erdogan's arrogance. That includes attempts to impose what many say are restrictive mores on their personal lives, such as how many children to have or whether to drink alcohol. Mr. Erdogan rejects the claims, saying he is a servant of the people.

In Tunisisa, he claimed that terrorists had gotten involved in the protests, saying an outlawed left-wing militant group that carried out a suicide bombing on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in February was taking part.

He also stuck to his determination that Taksim Square would be redeveloped, although he said the plan would include planting trees and constructing a theater and opera. Earlier plans included constructing a shopping mall.

Mr. Erdogan said his Islamic-rooted government already apologized for the violent police crackdown on the Taksim sit-in, but that tear gas was used throughout the world to break up protests. "Demands cannot be made through illegal means," he said.

So far, 4,300 people have been hurt or sought medical attention for effects of tear gas during the protests, the Turkish Human Rights Foundation said. One person is on life support in Ankara.

Mr. Erdogan has seen his support steadily rise since he first won elections in 2002, and he garnered nearly 50 percent of the 2011 vote. But critics -- and some in his support base of religious, conservative Muslims -- point out that even with half the electorate behind him, he cannot ignore the other 50 percent's wishes.

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