ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan piled ridicule on activists behind weeks of protests against his government during a rally on Sunday and defended riot police who fired water cannon at crowds in Istanbul a day earlier.
Looking out of over a sea of Turkish flags waved by his AK Party faithful in the eastern city of Erzurum, Erdogan praised his supporters and the general public for opposing what he called a plot against his country.
“The people saw this game from the start and frustrated it. They (the protesters) thought the people would say nothing. They said we will burn and destroy and do what we want but the people will do nothing,” he said.
Sunday’s mass rally was the fifth which Erdogan has called since protests began in Istanbul in an unprecedented challenge to his 10-year rule.
The unrest was triggered when police used force against campaigners opposed to plans to develop Istanbul’s Gezi Park, but they quickly turned into a broader show of anger at what critics call Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.
The protests have underlined divisions in Turkish society between religious conservatives who form the bedrock of Erdogan’s support and more liberal Turks who have swelled the ranks of demonstrators.
He ending his speech by throwing red carnations to the roughly 15,000-strong crowd in the AK Party stronghold.
The AK Party rallies are focused on boosting party support ahead of municipal elections scheduled for next March and Erdogan said voters would then give their verdict on the weeks of unrest.
“Those who came out using the excuse of Gezi at Taksim Square will get their answer at the ballot box,” he said.
Erdogan, who won a third consecutive election in 2011 with 50 percent support, sees himself as a champion of democratic reform, and has been riled by the protests and by international condemnation coming mainly from key trade partner Germany.
Saturday’s clashes occurred after thousands of protesters gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which adjoins Gezi Park, to remember the three demonstrators and one police officer who died in earlier protests. Many refused to leave after calls from the police for them to disperse.
Erdogan defended the tactics of the police, who also used fired teargas canisters to scatter protesters in nearby streets in cat-and-mouse clashes.
“Yesterday they wanted to occupy the square again. The police were patient up to a certain point,” he said. “When they didn’t leave the police was forced to get them out.”
There were also clashes on Saturday night in the capital Ankara, where riot police fired water cannon and teargas to break up hundreds of protesters.
The interior ministry estimates about 2.5 million people have taken part in demonstrations across Turkey since the unrest began on May 31, Milliyet newspaper reported on Sunday.
Around 4,900 protesters have been detained and 4,000 protesters and 600 police injured, the report added.
The interior ministry also said the protests had caused 140 million lira ($72 million) worth of damage to public buildings and vehicles.
($1 = 1.9388 Turkish liras)
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Andrew Heavens