ISTANBUL/ANKARA: Turkey's deputy prime minister sought to mollify tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators on Tuesday by apologising for a police crackdown on a peaceful protest that triggered five days of rioting across the country.
The comments by Bulent Arinc, who took charge of government after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan left on a visit to North Africa on Monday, contrasted with Erdogan's defiant dismissal of the protesters as "looters".
"The excessive violence that was used in the first instance against those who were behaving with respect for the environment is wrong and unfair. I apologise to those citizens," Arinc told a news conference in the capital Ankara.
"But I don't think we owe an apology to those who have caused damage in the streets and tried to prevent people's freedom," he said.
Arinc said he would meet some of the organisers of the original Istanbul protest, which has spiraled into an unprecedented show of anger at the ruling party.
It appeared to be too little too late.
Shops were shuttered on a main avenue leading to Istanbul's Taksim Square, the focus of the protests, as thousands of demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans marched by. Barricades of rubble blocked other streets leading to the square and the acrid smell of tear gas hung in the air.
A 22-year-old member of the main opposition youth wing was killed after being hit in the head at a rally in the southern town of Antakya near the Syrian border late on Monday, the second death after a taxi hit a demonstrator in Istanbul on Sunday. Officials initially said the Antakya victim had been shot.
The ferocity of the crackdown on the initial protests on Friday, which began over government plans to build over a Gezi Park in Taksim Square, shocked even Erdogan loyalists and drew international condemnation. US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was concerned by reports of excessive police force.
The KESK, the main public sector union federation that represents 240,000 members, launched a two-day strike to protest the police crackdown on what had begun as peaceful protests.
"These operations have drowned the country in gas bombs. The prime minister has become so thoughtless as to describe the millions who exercise their democratic rights ... as a 'handful of marginal looters'," KESK said in a statement.