Turkey's prime minister lashed out Saturday at what he called the "plot" behind the biggest street protests in his 10-year tenure, in a boisterous speech to tens of thousands of flag-waving party faithful.
Supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan converged in Sincan, a suburb of the capital Ankara that is a stronghold of his Justice and Development Party. The rally came just hours after protesters in Istanbul's Gezi Park defied Erdogan's warning that they must leave, vowing to press on with a two-week sit-in that has galvanized demonstrations around the country.
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"Over the last 17 days, I know that in all corners of Turkey, millions and billions have prayed for us," Erdogan said, as he moved about the stage. "You saw the plot that was being carried out, the trap being set." He said they represented the "silent masses."
"You are here, and you are spoiling the treacherous plot, the treacherous attack!" he said, insisting unspecified groups both inside and outside Turkey had conspired to mount the protests centered on Istanbul - and that he had the documents to prove it.
The crowd chanted in response: "Stand straight, don't bow, the people are with you!"
A violent police crackdown on what began as an environmental protest over a redevelopment plan at Gezi Park has sparked a much broader expression of discontent about Erdogan's government, and what many say is his increasingly authoritarian manner of governing.
Erdogan, who was elected with 50% of the vote for his third term in 2011, vehemently rejects the accusations. But the protests put some of the greatest political pressure on him in his 10-year tenure.
Erdogan has previously said that Saturday's rally of supporters and another planned Sunday in Istanbul were not designed as "an alternative" to the demonstrations at Gezi Park, but part of early campaigning for local elections next March.
In his speech, he focused on some protesters who have clashed with polices - at time by throwing stones and firebombs.
"There is no breaking and burning here, we are people of love," Erdogan said. "If people want to see the real Turkey, they should come here to Sincan."
Erdogan already has offered to defer to a court ruling on the legality of the government's contested park redevelopment plan, and floated the possibility of a referendum on it. But concessions over the park seem to no longer be enough.
Earlier this week, Erdogan ordered the adjacent Taksim Square to be cleared of protesters. Police moved past improvised barricades on Tuesday, firing tear gas and rubber bullets and using water cannons to fend off small groups of demonstrators throwing stones, bottles and firebombs. Tear gas was also fired through the trees into the park, although the protesters were not removed.
Taksim Square itself returned to normal right after the end of the police operation early Wednesday. Traffic returned, the protest banners and flags were taken down, and cafes set up their chairs and tables outside again. At night, demonstrators still spill out from the park down the steps, while riot police keep watch from the edges.
Earlier Saturday, President Abdullah Gul wrote on Twitter that "everyone should now return home," insisting that "the channels for discussion and dialogue" have opened - an apparent reference to the talks between Erdogan and a small group of delegates from the protest.
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