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Turkish PM, president at odds over protests

Tuesday - 6/4/2013, 3:54am  ET

A protester holding a fire extinguisher moves away from a burning car during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Monday, June 3, 2013. Demonstrations that grew out of anger over excessive police force have spiraled into Turkey's biggest anti-government demonstrations in years, challenging Prime Minister's Recep Tayyip Erdogan power. (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis)

SUZAN FRASER
Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkish riot police launched round after round of tear gas against protesters on Monday, the fourth day of violent demonstrations, as the president and the prime minister staked competing positions on the unrest.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected the protesters' demands that he resign and dismissed the demonstrations as the work of Turkey's opposition. President Abdullah Gul, for his part, praised the mostly peaceful protesters as expressing their democratic rights.

The two men could face off next year in Turkey's presidential election.

Turkey has been rocked by violent demonstrations since Friday, when police launched a pre-dawn raid against a peaceful sit-in protesting plans to uproot trees in Istanbul's main Taksim Square. Since then, the demonstrations by mostly secular-minded Turks have spiraled into Turkey's biggest anti-government disturbances in years.

Clashes continued late into the night Monday in both Istanbul and Ankara.

In Istanbul, the country's largest city, acrid clouds of tear gas billowed up from the streets of the Besiktas area as protesters ran for cover. Riot police deployed water cannons to keep demonstrators back.

An uneasy calm settled on the city's Taksim Square, which protesters were protecting with makeshift barricades using battered buses, cars and any other material they could find to prevent police from entering the square.

In Ankara, protesters chanted for Erdogan to resign.

Turkey's main stock exchange dropped 10.5 percent Monday as investors worried about the destabilizing effect of the demonstrations.

The Turkish Doctors' Association said one protester died after a vehicle slammed into a crowd in Istanbul but the governor's office insisted the man's death was accidental. The doctors' group also said eight people hurt in Ankara were in critical condition.

The protests are seen as a display of frustration with Erdogan, whom critics say has become increasingly authoritarian. Many accuse him of forcing his conservative, religious Islamic outlook on the lives of secular Turks.

Erdogan rejects the accusations, insisting he respects all sections of Turkish society and has no desire to infringe on different lifestyles. He has also rejected accusations of being authoritarian, saying: "I am not a master but a servant" of the people.

But he does believe the protests have a deeply political purpose.

"The protests weren't about the squares or the trees, some parties were not happy about results of the elections," Erdogan said late Monday while on a visit to Morocco. "The situation is a lot calmer now and reason seems to be prevailing. I think things will return to normal. These demonstrations are not all over Turkey, just in some big cities."

In Washington, the Obama administration voiced concern Monday over Turkey's crackdown on protesters, urging authorities to exercise restraint and all sides to refrain from violence.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has traveled to Turkey three times since becoming America's top diplomat, said the U.S. was following the situation closely and was troubled by reports of excessive force by the police. He also said Washington is "deeply concerned" by the large number of people who have been injured.

Erdogan, in power since 2003 after winning three elections in landslides, will hit his term limit as prime minister and could run against Gul next year. Erdogan has also advocated a new system that would give the head of state increased powers, leading to criticism that he may be trying to monopolize power.

The two men were close allies and among a core group who founded Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development party in 2001 but there have been signs of growing differences between them. Last year, Erdogan openly criticized Gul, saying Turkey cannot have a "double-headed government" after the president called on police to halt a crackdown on a pro-secular rally. Both men have denied allegations of a rift, however.

An opinion poll last year indicated that Turks would vote for Gul, rather than Erdogan, in the elections.

On Monday, the leader of Turkey's secular, main opposition party discussed the protests with Gul.

"The prime minister should apologize to protesters... We hope that once he does that the incident will be over completely," Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the Republican People's Party.

Gul was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, who is acting prime minister in Erdogan's absence.

Erdogan's adviser, Yalcin Akdogan, suggested the protests were an attempt to harm the prime minister's image.

"(Erdogan) is a leader who appears once every 100 years. He is a leader who has transformed Turkey," Akdogan said. "We won't allow him to be harmed."

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