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Park plans at center of deadly protests will go forward, Turkey's PM says

 

Turkey's prime minister suggested that his government would press ahead with park redevelopment plans for Istanbul, despite nearly a week of ongoing anti-government protests.

The protests were sparked by the police breakup of a sit-in to prevent the demolition of a park in central Istanbul, but it spiraled into rallies by thousands denouncing what they say is the government's increasingly authoritarian form of governing and its meddling in lifestyles. Protesters also are angered by what human rights groups have said is excessive use of force to disperse the protests.

Speaking at a news conference in Tunisia on Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to mellow his tone against the protesters, acknowledging that some Turks have been involved out of environmental concerns.

But he also insisted that some "terror groups" were involved in the demonstrations. His comments were carried by Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency.

All eyes were turned on Erdogan's tone, which could be decisive in determining whether the protests fizzle out or rage on and continue to shake his mainly Muslim but secular country, which has been touted as a model of stability in the region.

Erdogan is due to return to Turkey on Thursday from a four-day North African tour. Before he left, Ergodan repeatedly criticized the protesters' views.

"What is the message? I want to hear it from you," Erdogan said to reporters Monday. "What can a softened tone be like? Can you tell me?"

Huseyin Celik, deputy leader of Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party, says the government is sympathetic to secular-minded Turks' concerns and is prepared to take steps to "eliminate" their fears.

Celik has also called on party supporters not to come out in force to greet Erdogan when he arrives.

"The prime minister does not need a show of strength," Celik said in an interview, according to Reuters.

Gov. Huseyin Avni Cos, a Turkish regional governor, said on Thursday a police officer died in a hospital after falling onto an underpass that was still under construction in Adana, on the Mediterranean coast, the previous night. Three deaths, including the officer, have been reported during the protests.

Two protesters were reportedly killed in protests that have erupted in some 70 cities, and one person is on life support in a hospital in Ankara. The Turkish Human Rights Foundation said some 4,300 people were hurt or sought medical care for the effects of tear gas.

The government says dozens of police officers have been injured.

Scrambling to contain tensions, Turkish officials have delivered more conciliatory messages to the thousands of protesters. Turkey's deputy prime minister offered an apology for the heavy-handed way the sit-in protest was rousted.

Besir Atalay, another deputy prime minister, added: "We are carrying out an analysis. We are trying to better understand all of the messages. We are very sensitive on the issue."

Police late on Wednesday used tear gas to disperse thousands who massed in central Ankara. Witnesses said police fired gas at a group taking refreshments at a tavern. A human rights group said "several people" were hospitalized.

Also Wednesday, the Dogan news agency said a group of some 15 people who gathered in the northern city of Rize on Turkey's Black Sea coast were attacked by a group supporting the Erdogan government.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.