ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's prime minister used less belligerent language Thursday but said he would go ahead with redevelopment plans that have sparked nationwide protests, in comments that could be decisive in determining whether demonstrations fizzle out or rage on.
Speaking at a news conference in Tunisia on the last leg of a four-day tour of North Africa, Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged that some Turks have been involved in the protests out of environmental concerns, but insisted that terrorist groups are involved in the unrest in a country seen as a democratic model for the Middle East.
It appeared unlikely that Erdogan's comments would calm demonstrators. Some headed to an airport in Istanbul in anticipation of the prime minister's return home Thursday night.
Erdogan frequently spends weekends in Istanbul, rather than the capital Ankara. It was unclear whether he chose to land in Istanbul because he has a strong support base going back to his days as the city's mayor.
Investors appeared disappointed as Ergodan spoke, with Turkey's main stock exchange dropping as much as 8 percent on fears that continuing unrest would hit the country's economy.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Turkey's cities in protests that began after police violently cracked down on demonstrators camping out to protest plans for a development in Istanbul's Taksim Square.
The protests quickly spiraled into an outpouring of rage directed at Erdogan, who the demonstrators see as increasingly autocratic and uncompromising. Anger has grown at police for frequent use of tear gas and water cannons, and a human rights group says thousands of people have been injured.
Erdogan rejects the charges of authoritarianism, saying he is a servant of the people. In Tunisia, he said he had "love and respect" for protesters with environmental concerns.
"But as I told you earlier, some terrorist groups are involved," he said, claiming that an outlawed left-wing militant group that carried out a suicide bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in February was also involved in the protests.
"They are involved. They have been caught in the streets and on social media," he said.
Erdogan said the Islamic-rooted government had already apologized for the violent police crackdown on the Taksim sit-in, but insisted that tear gas was used everywhere in the world to break up protests.
"Demands cannot be made through illegal means," he said. Erdogan has insisted that democracy happens only at the ballot box, dismissing the demonstrators as an extremist fringe.
Erdogan indicated that the government would go ahead with the redevelopment plans in central Istanbul, insisting the plan would beautify the city, and would include the planting of trees and the construction of a modern theater and opera. He has earlier said the plans included the construction of a shopping mall.
Tunisia called out the army to protect the Turkish embassy following calls for protests in solidarity with Turkish demonstrators.
Some protesters in Taksim Square were skeptical of Erdogan's pledges.
"I do not believe his sincerity," said protester Hazer Berk Buyukturca.
Scrambling to contain tensions, Turkish officials have in recent days delivered more conciliatory messages. Turkey's deputy prime minister has offered an apology for the heavy-handed way the sit-in protest was rousted.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler insisted Thursday that police abuses were being investigated, and said that police were only dispersing protests that had turned violent. He defended police, saying many officers had acted with restraint despite provocations by some demonstrators.
Huseyin Celik, deputy leader of Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party, said the government is sympathetic to secular-minded Turks' concerns and is prepared to take steps to "eliminate" their fears.
Celik has also called on supporters of Erdogan's party not to come out in force to greet Erdogan when he arrives.
A police officer was reported killed on Thursday while trying to subdue a protest in southern Turkey, bringing the death toll in a week of demonstrations to three.
Gov. Huseyin Avni Cos said the officer died in a hospital after falling into an underpass under construction in Adana, on the Mediterranean coast. He was trying to break up protests there.
Two protesters have been reported killed, and one person is on life support in a hospital in Ankara. The Turkish Human Rights Foundation said some 4,300 people were hurt or sought medical care for the effects of tear gas.
Guler said Thursday more than 500 police officers have been injured. A total of 746 protests had erupted in 78 cities, causing some 70 million Turkish Lira ($37 million) in damages, he said. Nearly 80 protesters were still hospitalized, he said.
The minister added that almost all detained protesters had been released.
Officials said a total of seven foreign nationals were detained during the protests, including two Iranians, two French nationals, and one person each from the United States, Greece and Germany.
In Taksim, restaurant owner Osman Emre Uygun said he believed the protesters had gone too far, but that Erdogan, has a duty to listen to the people who disagree with him.
"As a leader you have responsibilities and duties toward your people, even if you don't share their beliefs," said Uygun, who was interviewed at Istanbul's Hurriyet Mahallesi neighborhood, a traditionally conservative, Erdogan-supporting area.
"That means even if they are not Muslim, you have to defend their rights. We want some common sense. We want him to listen to the protesters and their demands," he said.
Becatoros reported from Istanbul. Ezgi Akin in Ankara contributed.