Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan received a hero's welcome on his return to Istanbul on Friday after he stormed out of a heated debate on Israel's Gaza offensive at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Thousands of people gathered at Istanbul's Ataturk airport to greet Erdogan when he returned, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and chanting his name.
Turkish TV showed some of the supporters outside of the airport gate holding banners that applauded his Palestinian stance in Davos. CNN television said extra buses were being added so more people could turn out to welcome him.
Enthusiastic welcome in Istanbul (Photo: Reuters)
Many carried banners denouncing Israel, even though Turkey is traditionally the Jewish state's closest ally in the Muslim world.
"I did what I had to do," he told reporters gathered at the airport. "I cannot remain apathetic when it comes to these things, it's just not in my nature. I am duty-bound to defend the honour of my country."
The Palestinian Hamas organization praised Erdogan on Friday. "Hamas commends the courageous stance of the Turkish prime minister, who defended the victims of the Zionist criminal war against our children and women in Gaza, in the face of evil Zionist Shimon Peres," group spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a statement
During a debate on the Middle East Peres had launched a passionate defense of his country's assault on Gaza over the past month and, with a raised voice and pointed finger, questioned what Erdogan would do if rockets were fired at Istanbul every night.
"I don't think I will come back to Davos because you don't let me speak," said the Turkish prime minister, who complained of not getting time to reply. He stood up and walked out of the conference hall.
Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas, from Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party, arrived at the airport to give his backing to the prime minister, Hurriyet daily said.
Peres had asked Erdogan directly, "What would you do if you were to have in Istanbul every night a hundred rockets?"
'Friends could sometimes have an argument'
The visibly angry Erdogan had responded strongly to Peres' repeated question to the panel of what they would do in Israel's position.
"President Peres, you are older than I am. Maybe you are feeling guilty and that is why you are so strong in your words. You killed people. I remember the children who died on beaches," Erdogan said, through an interpreter.
Protestors at airport (Photo: AFP)
Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency, quoting unnamed diplomatic sources, said Peres told Erdogan late on Thursday that he was sorry about what had happened during the panel discussion on Gaza.
"I am very sorry for what happened and friends could sometimes have an argument between themselves. I have always had a great respect for the Republic of Turkey and you as the prime minister. I consider myself as a friend of Turkey and Premier Erdogan," Peres told Erdogan during a telephone conversation, Anatolian said.
Muslim Turkey, which has close ties with Israel and the Arab world, has harshly criticized Israel over its Gaza operation, in which more than 1,300 people were killed.
Erdogan's rhetoric has shocked Israel, and has been interpreted by some as an attempt to shore up support ahead of local elections in March with an electorate deeply sympathetic to Palestinians.
Reuters, AFP and The Associated Press contributed to this report