Amid Protests, Erdogan Vows to Go Ahead With Istanbul Park Development

Turkish prime minister, who is visiting the Maghreb, maintains that the opposition to the construction project, which sparked violent demonstrations, is politically motivated.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Thursday that his government would go ahead with a development project in Istanbul although opposition to the plan has unleashed anti-government protests across the country.

"Competition in this matter or offering give and take is not a way in which you can run a state," Erdogan said during a visit to Tunisia.

"Why is there opposition to this project? Because it is being done by the AKP," he said, referring to Turkey's ruling party, his Justice and Development Party.

The protests, which started as a backlash against plans to build a replica of an Ottoman army barracks, swelled over the weekend into anti-government protests that have drawn tens of thousands across the country, especially after government officials used water cannon and tear gas to subdue the initial demonstrations.

Protesters have accused Erdogan of being authoritarian and trying to impose Islamic values.

Erdogan has disparaged them and criticized their use of social media to organize as a "menace." However, during Erdogan's North African trip, other officials back home have met with protesters to try to calm the situation.

Nonetheless, protests continued Thursday as the death toll rose to four after a police commissioner in the southern province of Adana died Thursday. He fell off a bridge Wednesday while pursuing protesters.

In Izmir, 33 people were released after being detained on suspicion of using the microblogging site Twitter to coordinate the protests and warn about police activities, the daily Hurriyet reported.

One person remained in custody while a search was on for four more suspects, the newspaper said.

Erdogan has described Twitter as full of "unmitigated lies."

"The thing that is called social media is a troublemaker in societies today," he said this week.

Turkey's stock exchange plunged by more than eight per cent after Erdogan's comments Thursday. The ongoing violence has stoked concerns about the financial health of Turkey, long seen as one of the region's most stable economies.

Several Western countries have posted travel advisories in the wake of the protests, which could also threaten the country's key tourism industry.

Media reports also said that as many as 15 foreigners, including some possibly carrying diplomatic passports, had been arrested during police operations against the protests.

Erdogan said in Tunis that seven foreigners had been arrested. He said there was "no basis" for claims that the foreigners held diplomatic passports.

"Investigations are taking place into who they are, how they arrived and how they became involved in confrontations with the security forces," Erdogan said.

Leading Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen said in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman that the protests should not be underestimated or ignored.

"We share the blame," he said, noting that his Gulenist movement had not done enough to end problems facing Turkish society, noting that while it focused on one issue, "50-fold more wrongs are being committed, sparking more rancor and hatred."

The top EU official for neighborhood policy is to meet protesters during a two-day visit to Turkey, his spokesman said Thursday.

The activists participating in the week-long protests would be represented in talks that EU Commissioner Stefan Fule would hold with civil society groups, spokesman Peter Stano said.

During the visit, which lasts through Friday, Fule would also meet Turkish government officials to discuss the country's wish to join the European Union and participate in a conference on EU-Turkey relations.

"The conference will be also an opportunity for a debate on the medium-term future for Turkey and reflections on lessons learnt from events of the last few days," the European Commission had said in a statement Wednesday.