ISTANBUL – Turkey's prime minister on Sunday rejected claims that is an authoritarian leader, dismissing protesters as an extremist fringe even as hundreds moved back into the landmark square that was the site of the fiercest anti-government outburst in years.
Over the past three days, protesters around the country have unleashed pent-up resentment against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who after 10 years in office many secular Turks see as an uncompromising figure with undue influence in every part of life.
A huge, exuberant protest in Taksim Square subsided overnight, but hundreds of people were streaming into the area again on Sunday and some 1,500 people were assembling in a square in Ankara, the capital.
Many waved flags, sang and called on Erdogan to resign. Some protesters have compared him to a sultan and denounced him as a dictator.
"If they call someone who has served the people a 'dictator,' I have nothing to say," Erdogan said in an address to a group representing migrants from the Balkans. "My only concern has been to serve my country."
In another speech delivered an hour later, Erdogan said: "I am not the master of the people. Dictatorship does not run in my blood or in my character. I am the servant of the people."
The demonstrations were ignited by a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in to prevent the uprooting of trees at Istanbul's Taksim Square.
Police and protesters clashed violently on Friday and Saturday, with clouds of tear gas overwhelming the normally touristy city center and hundreds injured.
Thousands flooded into the square on Saturday after police lifted barricades to try to reduce tensions. The government said some 1,000 people were detained during the protests.
There were violent clashes between police and demonstrators trying to approach Erdogan's offices both in Ankara and Istanbul late on Saturday, but there were no immediate reports of any skirmishes on Sunday.
Erdogan continued to maintain a defiant tone, calling the protests "ideological" and manipulated by an opposition "unable to beat (the government) at the ballot box."
He also reiterated that his government would not back away from plans to uproot trees at Taksim as part of his urban renovation plans for the area. In a statement that could cause more controversy, he also declared that a mosque would be built at Taksim.
The mosque plans have long been contentious because it would further shrink the green spaces in Istanbul's city center. Some argue that there are already plenty of mosques around Taksim.
"I am not going to seek the permission of the (the opposition) or a handful of plunderers," Erdogan said.
Erdogan also defended his government's environmental record, saying it had planted two billion trees since coming to office in 2002.