By SUZAN FRASER
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s deputy prime minister offered an apology Tuesday for the government’s violent crackdown on an environmental protest, a calculated bid to ease days of anti-government rallies in the country’s major cities.
The message was a bit mixed, however, as hundreds of riot police deployed with water cannons around the prime minister’s office in Ankara, the capital.
Bulent Arinc, who is standing in for the prime minister while he is out of the country, said the crackdown was “wrong and unjust.”
“In that first (protest) action, the excessive violence exerted on people who were acting out of environmental concerns was wrong and unjust,” Arinc said. “I apologize to those citizens.”
Yet the impact of his statement was unclear. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is visiting Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, has undermined previous statements by his ministers and has dismissed the protesters as a fringe minority stirred up by the opposition.
Tens of thousands of mostly secular-minded Turks have joined anti-government rallies since Friday, when police launched a pre-dawn raid against a peaceful sit-in protesting plans to uproot trees in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square. Since then, the demonstrations have spiraled into Turkey’s biggest anti-government disturbances in years.
Late Tuesday night, thousands of people were demonstrating in the square. Many of the streets leading into it have been blocked by barricades that protesters have built of overturned dumpsters, metal railings and damaged vehicles to keep police away.
At one point, near the German Consulate, police fired tear gas at several hundred protesters who were throwing bricks at the officers.
A 22-year-old man died during an anti-government protest in a city near Turkey’s border with Syria, and officials gave conflicting reports on what caused his death.
Police have been accused of using disproportionate force in trying to break up demonstrations. In a boisterous debate in Parliament, Interior Minister Muammer Guler defended police officers’ use of tear gas against demonstrators trying to reach government buildings.
“Should we have allowed them to march and take over Parliament?” he asked. “We do not have the luxury to allow illegal acts and will never have that luxury.”
Arinc said he had no information about reports that riot police had erased or painted over numbers on their helmets so people could not report them in the event of abuse.
Guler, the interior minister, said protesters had destroyed CCTV cameras around Taksim, and the vandalism would make it harder for the government to detect abuse by police and identify perpetrators.
The Turkish Human Rights Association said some 3,300 people nationwide were detained during four days of protests, although most have since been released. At least 1,300 people were injured, the group said, although it said the number could be higher.
Protests have been directed at what critics say is Erdogan’s aggressive and authoritarian style of governing. Many accuse him of forcing his conservative, religious outlook on citizens’ lives in this mainly Muslim but secular nation. Erdogan rejects the accusations, says he respects all lifestyles.
Arinc said the government was “sensitive” to the demands of the largely urban, pro-secular section of society that had not voted for Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party.
“I would like to express this in all sincerity: everyone’s lifestyle is important to us and we are sensitive to them,” he said.
There were several other efforts to ease tensions.
Sirri Sureyya Onder, legislator from a Kurdish party who became a hero to many for standing in front of bulldozers to prevent the destruction of trees in Istanbul’s Taksim square, called on demonstrators to continue protests in a more festival-like manner.
The state-run Anadolu Agency said police in Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast, handed over carnations and roses to a group of protesters.
Both Onder and Arinc spoke after a meeting with President Abdullah Gul who, contrary to Erdogan, has praised the mostly peaceful protesters as expressing their democratic rights.
Gul and Erdogan could face off next year in Turkey’s presidential election.
The Hatay province governor’s office initially said the man who died, Abdullah Comert, was shot Monday during a demonstration in the city of Antakya. It backtracked after Hatay’s chief prosecutor’s office said an autopsy showed Comert had received a blow to the head and there was no trace of a gunshot wound.
Gov. Celalettin Lekesiz did not respond to a journalist’s question as to whether the man may have died after being hit in the head by a gas canister.
Arinc said the government was taking “all measures” to ensure that similar “bad incidents” were not repeated as police subdued protests.
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva expressed concern over the excessive use of force by police and called on Turkey to respect the people’s right to peaceful protests and to promptly investigate abuses.
Crowds at Taksim Square and downtown Ankara began to swell with protesters once again late Tuesday as people left work.
In a town near Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir, some protesters set the local office of Erdogan’s ruling party on fire. The blaze was quickly extinguished.
In Istanbul, many people slept in the shade of trees in Gezi Park, the part of Taksim Square that sparked the protests, while others walked around with bags cleaning up trash. Overturned cars and burned-out vans ringed the edges, spray-painted with graffiti.
A public service workers union called a two-day strike in support of the protests and thousands of its members marched to Taksim Square on Tuesday. There was, however, no evidence of any major disruption to services.
In a further step toward easing the tensions, Arinc was to meet Wednesday with a group of activists, architects and academicians who are uniting to protect Taksim Square.
Associated Press writers Elena Becatoros in Istanbul, Ezgi Akin and Burhan Ozbilici in Ankara and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.