- Associated Press - Friday, June 7, 2013

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s prime minister took a combative stance on his closely watched return to the country early Friday, telling supporters who thronged to greet him that the protests that have swept the country must come to an end.

In the first extensive public show of support since anti-government protests erupted last week, more than 10,000 supporters cheered Recep Tayyip Erdogan with rapturous applause outside Istanbul’s international airport.

Despite earlier comments that suggested he could be softening his stand, Mr. Erdogan delivered a fiery speech on his return from a four-day trip to North Africa.

“These protests that are bordering on illegality must come to an end as of now,” he said.

Tens of thousands of protesters have held demonstrations that have spread to dozens of cities across Turkey, sparked by the violent police reaction last Friday to what started out as a small protest against a plan to develop Istanbul’s central Taksim Square.

Since then, three people have died — two protesters and a policeman — and thousands have been wounded.

One protester is on life support in a hospital in Ankara.

Protesters from all walks of life have occupied Taksim Square and its park, objecting to what they call Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic and arrogant manner — charges he vehemently denies.

Turks have been awaiting Mr. Erdogan’s words upon his return, seeing them as a signal of whether the demonstrations would fizzle or rage on.

Mr. Erdogan at times was almost drowned out by his supporters, part of the base that has helped him win three landslide elections. “God is Great,” they chanted, and soon moved on to slogans referring specifically to the protesters in Taksim Square.

“Let us go, let us smash them,” they shouted. “Istanbul is here, where are the looters?”

While Mr. Erdogan has referred to the protesters as looters and troublemakers, he also acknowledged that excessive police force might have been used, and promised it would be investigated.

While Mr. Erdogan’s speech, delivered from atop an open-air bus outside the airport terminal, appeared at first to be an attempt to strike a unifying note, he soon became more combative.

“We have never been for building tension and polarization. But we cannot applaud brutality,” he said.

In his last speech in Tunisia before flying to Istanbul, Mr. Erdogan had said that terrorist groups were involved in the protests, saying they had been identified.

In a twist, Mr. Erdogan implied that bankers were also part of a conspiracy that was fueling the protests. He added that the flames of dissent had been fanned by other groups too.

“Those who call themselves journalists, artists, politicians, have, in a very irresponsible way, opened the way for hatred, discrimination and provocation,” he said.

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