Istanbul: A Turkish opposition leader sparked fury Wednesday by saying a mistaken attack on Korean tourists by anti-Chinese protesters was understandable, given that both peoples have "slitty eyes".
The comments by Turkey`s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) chief Devlet Bahceli were particularly sensitive at a time when his party is seen as a possible partner for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a government coalition after June 7 elections.
Over the last week, hundreds of Turkish nationalists across the country have protested China`s alleged restrictions on Muslim Uighurs worshipping and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
On Saturday Turkish nationalists shouting "Allahu Akbar" mistakenly attacked a group of South Korean tourists in the heart of Istanbul`s old city, believing they were Chinese.
"These are young people. Some can mislead these young people and they may follow them," Bahceli said in an interview with Hurriyet newspaper published on Wednesday.
"What is the difference between a Korean and a Chinese anyway? They both have slitty eyes. Does it make any difference?" he said.
"Our young people are very sensitive about the oppression taking place in China. They (protesters) should be able to exercise their democratic rights."
Bahceli`s comments sparked outrage on Twitter, with some users accusing him of racism and inciting hatred.
"Is it OK to beat someone as long as they have slitty eyes? Is that so Mr Bahceli?" one Twitter user with the handle @Karsitaraf34 wrote.
A predominantly Muslim country, Turkey shares linguistic and religious links with the Uighur community, which has several associations here.
Riot police stepped in on Saturday to rescue the tourists from the attackers, members of the far-right Grey Wolves movement, affiliated with MHP.
A popular Chinese restaurant in Istanbul was attacked last week and had its windows smashed by a group protesters who did not realise it was Turkish-owned and that its chef was an ethnic Uighur.
Turkey last week summoned the Chinese ambassador to convey its "deep concerns" over the alleged restrictions.
Beijing in turn denied the allegations, demanded that Turkey clarify its statements and warned its residents travelling in Turkey to be careful of anti-China protests.
Bahceli also suggested that those attacking the Asians could be "heavy metal fans" as the hand gesture commonly used by the Grey Wolves movement is very similar to the heavy metal gesture.