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Turkey PM denies 'Turkish Spring', one dead in protests

High school students hold up a Turkish flag during a protest at Gezi park of Taksim square, in Istanbul, Monday, June 3, 2013.(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday rejected talk of a "Turkish Spring", shrugging off mass protests against his Islamic-rooted government as medics reported the first death in four days of violence.

The clashes claimed their first victim on Sunday when a car ploughed into demonstrators occupying a highway in Istanbul, killing left-wing activist Mehmet Ayvalitas, the Union of Turkish Doctors said in a statement.

In the capital Ankara, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of stone-throwing demonstrators, after a string of similar clashes in scores of cities across Turkey since Friday.

The premier, who went ahead with an official visit to Morocco despite facing the biggest challenge against his decade-long rule, has vowed to "stand firm" against the protests.

He dismissed the protesters as "vandals", rejecting talk of a "Turkish Spring" uprising and stressing that he was democratically elected.

"Was there a multi-party system in the Arab Spring countries?" Erdogan said in televised comments on Monday.

The unrest began as a local outcry against plans to redevelop Istanbul's Gezi Park but after a tough police response grew into wider anti-government protests, with demonstrators accusing Erdogan of seeking to impose conservative Islamic reforms on secular Turkey.

"We have had enough of the way Erdogan understands democracy and the way he wants to dictate his rules," said Ozgur Aksoy, a young engineer demonstrating in Gezi Park near Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests.

"It's not only about the park here, it is about everything else in the last 10 years. People are angry, very angry."

Rights groups and doctors say more than a thousand people have been injured in clashes in Istanbul and 700 in Ankara.

The government's last estimate on Sunday put the figure at 58 civilians and 115 security forces, with clashes in 67 cities. It also said over 1,700 had been arrested across the country, though many have since been released.

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday voiced concern over "reports of excessive use of force" by Turkish police and urged all sides to "avoid any provocations or violence".

Erdogan's ally President Abdullah Gul meanwhile called for calm and promised protesters their voice had been heard, urging an end to the disturbances.

"I am calling on all my citizens to abide by the rules and state their objections and views in a peaceful way, as they have already done," he said.

As demonstrators carrying flags and banners continued to occupy Istanbul's iconic Taksim Square, where the protest first erupted last week, some 3,000 demonstrators rallied outside the Istanbul offices of Dogus Holding, a leading media group, to criticise the Turkish media coverage of the protests.

They accused mainstream media outlets of failing to properly cover the unrest, saying they were being cowed by the government.

As clashes flared at the weekend, some prime-time TV stations aired penguin documentaries and cooking shows instead of reporting on the nationwide protests.

Erdogan himself has lashed out at Twitter, used by many of the protesters, accusing the online messaging service of spreading "lies".

"Society gets terrorised this way," he told the Haberturk television channel on Sunday, citing false tweets about attacks against protesters and fatalities.

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is traditionally backed by conservative Islamic politicians and voters in Turkey, a secular state peopled mostly by Muslims.

It has won three successive parliamentary elections, but opponents have expressed mounting concern that Turkey is moving toward conservative Islam.

Many of the protesters in recent days have called for Erdogan to step down, with some chanting: ""Dictator, resign!... We will resist until we win."

"This is a movement which is a result of growing frustration and disappointment among secular segments of society who could not influence politics over the last decade," said Sinan Ulgen, a scholar at the think tank Carnegie Europe.

"This is an unprecedented, abrupt and unplanned public movement that has not been manipulated by any political party. It is a big surprise."

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan has passed contested reforms on religious education and a recent law curbing the sale of alcohol. In 2004 he backed down on a proposed adultery law.

Shrugging off the rising protests, he pushed ahead on Monday with what he said was a pre-planned four-day official trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Speaking before his departure, he pointed to elections set for 2014, when observers expect Erdogan to run for president.

"My nation will give the necessary response in this election," he said. "If we are really resorting to anti-democratic practices, our nation will overthrow us."

 

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