Istanbul: Thousands of angry Turks took to the streets on Saturday to join mass anti-government protests, defying Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan`s call to end the worst civil unrest of his decade-long rule.
From the early morning, protesters began arriving in Istanbul`s Taksim Square with food and blankets to settle in for a weekend of demonstrations, adding to the growing tent city in nearby Gezi Park.
"A week ago, I could never imagine myself sleeping out on the streets of Istanbul," said 22-year old Aleyna, wrapped up under a blanket with a stray kitten, pointing to her dirty clothes. "Now I don`t know how I can ever go back."
Fresh demonstrations were also planned in the capital Ankara as the unrest entered its ninth day.
Turkey`s combative premier on Friday called for an immediate end to the protests, saying his Islamic-rooted government was open to "democratic demands" but insisting that the protests were "bordering on vandalism."
The political turmoil erupted after police cracked down heavily on a small campaign to save Gezi Park from demolition, spiralling into nationwide demos against Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Police have used tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have injured thousands of people and left three dead, tarnishing Turkey`s image as a model of Islamic democracy.
Faced with international criticism of his handling of the crisis, Erdogan on Friday accused Western allies of double standards after EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule urged a "swift and transparent" probe into police abuses in Turkey, a longtime EU hopeful.
Erdogan issued a sharp retort, saying those involved in a similar protest would "face a harsher response" in any European country.
The premier, who has dismissed the demonstrators as "a few looters" manipulated by extremists, added in a more conciliatory tone: "I`m open-hearted to anyone with democratic demands."
But demonstrators dug in their heels overnight, with thousands massing peacefully in festive Taksim, while others took to the streets in other Turkish cities, banging pots and pans as they marched in protest.
Taksim has been free of a police presence since officers relinquished the square to protesters last Saturday after the government acknowledged it was their heavy-handed response that lit the flame of the unrest.
In a quiet night nationwide, one only Istanbul suburb saw fresh clashes, with police using tear gas and water cannon on protesters who reportedly threw fireworks and homemade bombs at them.
Erdogan was due to meet top AKP officials for a regular party gathering in Istanbul on Saturday and was expected to make a speech afterwards.
Bracing for his reaction to their continued demonstrations, many protesters said they felt safe in Taksim, as local media reported Istanbul police would not interfere with their action over the weekend.
"Our motto is: let`s bring down the government and build a shopping mall in its place," said 24-year old Ali, criticising the government for a "capitalist hunger" he said was ruining his country.
The national doctors` union says the unrest has so far left three people dead -- two protesters and a policeman -- while almost 4,800 people have been injured across Turkey.
Critics accuse Erdogan, in power since 2002, of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation, and of pushing grandiose urban development projects at the expense of local residents.
Jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan on Friday voiced his support for the protests, despite his involvement in peace talks with the Turkish authorities aimed at ending a near 30-year armed conflict.
NATO member Turkey has long sought to join the 27-member EU bloc but efforts have recently stalled, with reticence over the country`s human rights record a key stumbling block.
But Fule, the EU`s top official on the issue, said in Istanbul that the bloc was sticking by the country`s membership bid.
Despite the intense opposition, the 59-year-old Erdogan remains the country`s most popular politician, with his AKP winning three elections in a row and gained almost 50 percent of votes in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.
Supporters of the premier, who have stayed mainly silent, cut loose on Friday and flocked to Istanbul`s main airport to welcome him home from a trip to north Africa, chanting "We will die for you, Erdogan".