Amid protests, Erdogan returns to Turkey

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Story highlights

Prime minister says protests have "lost all democratic characteristics"

Erdogan urges his supporters to pull back

He returns to Turkey after a four-day trip to North Africa

Istanbul, Turkey CNN  — 

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended on Friday his government’s handling of the protests that erupted in Istanbul’s Taksim Square over plans to bulldoze the city’s last green space to make way for a shopping mall.

Erdogan arrived early Friday in Istanbul, where he was met at an airport by thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters. He had been on a four-day trip to North Africa.

“These demonstrations have lost all democratic characteristics,” the leader said, speaking from a bus decorated with his image. “My innocent citizens must extricate themselves from the demonstrations.”

Erdogan accused protesters of breaking the law because they have been unable to defeat him at the ballot box.

Still, he struck a few conciliatory notes.

The prime minister acknowledged, again, that police may have used excessive force last week, and said he had ordered an investigation.

“Some people say I am the prime minister of 50%,” Erdogan told the crowd. “We are the servants of 76 million people.”

One day earlier, analysts blamed the prime minister for a sharp sell-off in the country’s stock markets after he made defiant remarks about the protests.

The market plunge punctuated a day of relative calm in Istanbul, where for the first time in a week the sky wasn’t clouded with tear gas.

Demonstrators have demanded Erdogan’s resignation, accusing his government of creeping authoritarianism. The demonstrations have united disparate groups dissatisfied with Erdogan and angry over what protesters and international critics have described as a heavy-handed response by security forces.

The result has been the biggest challenge to Erdogan and his governing Justice and Development Party during their decade in power.

Thursday, Erdogan held a news conference in Tunisia that was broadcast live in Turkey, but proved difficult to understand: His comments were translated from Turkish to Arabic and then retranslated back to Turkish.

But in tweets from the account of the Turkish Prime Ministry, Erdogan said, “Sensitivities of people for environmental issues are abused. We already expressed our sorrow for excessive use of force.” Another read, “Unlawful methods for claiming rights cannot be tolerated.”

Within minutes, the Turkish stock markets – which had already dropped during the protests – took a fresh dive. The benchmark Borsa Istanbul 100 index plunged up to 7.5% before recovering some of its losses. With no other important statements or economic reports, it was clear the losses were the result of Erdogan’s speech, said Atilla Yesilada, financial analyst for Istanbul Analytics.

“This is an unbelievable sell-off,” he said. “The pace of the losses suggest that there are now no buyers in the market. That people are trying to get out with whatever they can rescue as far as their prices.”

Read: Is Turkey on the verge of a meltdown?

On the streets Thursday, the government’s apology for excessive use of police force and its meetings with opposition leaders and representatives of protesters camped out in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square appeared to have cooled tensions in the commercial capital.

But a demonstration nearly 1,000 kilometers southeast, in the city of Adana, resulted in the first reported death of a police officer since the protests erupted. Capt. Mustafa Sari died in a hospital as a result of injuries suffered when he plunged off a bridge Wednesday night, the Adana governor’s office told CNN.

The semiofficial Anatolia News Agency reported the incident occurred while Sari was “intervening in a group of illegal demonstrators.”

Two protesters have been killed in the demonstrations. One was hit by a car in Istanbul; the other was shot in the head by unknown assailants in the border city of Antakya.

More than 4,300 people have been wounded in clashes over the past week, the Turkish Medical Association said.

Read: Amid tear gas and rubble, protesters in Turkey remain defiant

Before Erdogan departed Monday, he maintained a defiant tone, accusing demonstrators of being members of “marginal groups,” denouncing social media as a “menace to society” and calling anyone who drinks alcohol an alcoholic.

But in his absence, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc sought to reassure secular Turks that their lifestyle will be respected.

Still, protesters returned Thursday to the centers of cities such as Ankara and Istanbul, where the movement began over government plans to bulldoze a park.

Wednesday, demonstrators gathered peacefully in the Ankara city center during the day. Police remained at a distance before moving in at dusk with tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowds. Some protesters responded with rage, kicking police vans.

Woman labeled ‘icon’ of Turkey protests: It’s not about me

The demonstrations in Turkey started as a small sit-in over plans to bulldoze Gezi Park – the last green space in central Istanbul – and replace it with a shopping mall housed inside a replica of a 19th-century Ottoman barracks.

After riot police moved in to break up the demonstration with tear gas and pepper spray, protesters set up barricades and hurled bottles at police.

Analysts say the protests have provided a channel for Turks alienated from and frustrated by Erdogan’s government. Opposition parties are weak and divided, observers say, and have failed to convincingly challenge the governing party during its decade in power.

But they also point to widespread popular support for Erdogan. Under his government, the Turkish economy has grown and his party has been rewarded with comfortable victories at the ballot box.

Read: Unions join forces with Turkish protesters

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh in Ankara, Jethro Mullen in Hong Kong and Dana Ford, Tom Watkins and Matt Smith in Atlanta contributed to this report.