Erdogan has previously defied the protesters, dismissing them as "extremists," but on Thursday he defended the urban development plan in Taksim which was the nexus between growing secular anti-Erdogan sentiment and the current demonstrations.
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"The project respects (Turkey's) history, culture and environment," Erdogan said after meeting with his Tunisian counterpart. "What we are doing is protect the rights of the majority and preserve the beauty of Istanbul," he said, adding that he did not link the environmental activists to the unrest.
Erdogan respects citizens 'concerned about environment' (Photo: AFP)
"We know very well who is involved in the disturbances, and I exclude all citizens concerned about preserving the environment."
Erdogan was alluding to comments he also made on Thursday in which he claimed that members of a "terrorist organization" were taking part in deadly anti-government protests.
Doctors administer treatment to protester (Photo: AFP)
He made the comment immediately before announcing his refusal to cancel the controversial Istanbul redevelopment plan that sparked protests, adding that seven foreigners implicated in the unrest had been arrested.
"Among the protesters, there are extremists, some of them involved in terrorism," Erdogan told reporters in Tunis, on the final day of a north African tour that has been overshadowed by the unrest back home.
Gezi Park protest encampment (Photo: AFP)
"Supporters of this terrorist organization were present" in Istanbul's Taksim Square, the epicenter of the protests, he added.
He did not specify the nationalities of the detained foreigners or where they had been arrested but did say that "Seven foreigners have been part of the unrest; six of them have appeared before the public prosecutor and one of them is under arrest.
Life continues on backdrop of ongoing protests (Photo: EPA)
"An inquiry is taking place to determine the manner in which they took part in the violence," the prime minister said. His comments came in the wake of reports that 15 Iranians, allegedly with links to Iran's intelligence agencies, were arrested Wednesday.
Since last weekend, thousands of angry demonstrators opposed to the conservative policies of Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) have taken to the streets of Turkey's main cities calling for him to quit.
Erdogan: Can 'mobilize million supporters' (Photo: EPA)
Protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park next to Taksim, said they were bracing for Erdogan’s return from Tunisia on Thursday evening.
“I’m afraid because I don’t know what he will do,” chemistry student Ezgi Ozbilgin, 24, who camped out in the park overnight, told AFP.
“AKP supporters are like sheep. If Erdogan says go fight, they will fight. If he says stay, they will stay.”
In a hint that the wave of outrage could become two-sided, Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik has urged AKP supporters not to flock to the airport to welcome Erdogan back to avoid inflaming tensions.
“The prime minister does not need a show of power,” he told a local television channel.
However, Erdogan earlier said that he could “mobilize a million supporters of my party” if he had to.
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