Turkey's prime minister took a combative stance on his closely watched return to the country early Friday, telling supporters who thronged to greet him that the protests that have swept the country must come to an end.
In the first extensive public show of support since anti-government protests erupted last week, more than 10,000 supporters cheered Recep Tayyip Erdogan with rapturous applause outside an Istanbul airport.
Despite earlier comments that suggested he could be softening his stand, Erdogan delivered a fiery speech on his return from a four-day trip to North Africa. "These protests that are bordering on illegality must come to an end immediately," he said.
Erdogan's reaction has been seen as decisive in determining whether the demonstrations fizzle out or rage on. His tough tone could be an attempt not to appear weak to the base that has helped him win three landslide elections.
"Those who raise their hands against the police should have their hands broken," his supporters chanted. Rights groups say thousands of people have been injured in the demonstrations. Three people have died — two protesters and a policeman.
The protests have attracted tens of thousands of people from all walks of life who criticize Erdogan for what they say is an increasingly arrogant and autocratic nature - charges he rejects.
"They say I am the prime minister of only 50 percent. It's not true. We have served the whole of the 76 million from the east to the west," he said at the airport, referring to his election win in 2011, when he took 50 percent of the vote.
Speaking before leaving Tunisia to fly back to Istanbul, Erdogan had attempted more of a balancing act, appearing to moderate his tone in an effort not to further inflame protesters.
Those comments don't appear to have swayed many of the thousands of protesters who thronged central Istanbul's Taksim Square for a sixth day Thursday. More than 10,000 others filled a busy street in a middle class area of Ankara.
"I do not believe his sincerity," said protester Hazer Berk Buyukturca.
Turkey's main stock market revealed the fears that Erdogan's comments would do little to defuse the protesters, with the general price index plunging by 8 percent after his comments on concerns that continuing unrest would hit the country's economy.
In his comments in Tunisia, Erdogan acknowledged that some Turks were involved in the protests out of environmental concerns, and said he had "love and respect" for them.
"His messages were a lot softer than when he left. But they were not soft enough," said Sukru Kucuksahin, columnist and political commentator for Hurriyet Newspaper. "On the other hand, I don't think that the demonstrations will continue with such intensity forever."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now