Istanbul: Thousands of angry Turks took to the streets today 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 yesterday 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 yesterday 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.