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Turkish official apologizes, calls crackdown ‘unjust’

Police continue to use deterrents against protesters

Police fired tear gas at protesters in Istanbul on Tuesday. Antigovernment rallies have grown since Friday, when police raided a sit-in to protest plans to uproot some trees.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Police fired tear gas at protesters in Istanbul on Tuesday. Antigovernment rallies have grown since Friday, when police raided a sit-in to protest plans to uproot some trees.

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 antigovernment 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.

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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 antigovernment rallies since Friday, when police launched a predawn 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 antigovernment 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 antigovernment 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, saying he respects all lifestyles.

Arinc said the government was ‘‘sensitive’’ to the demands of the largely urban, prosecular 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.

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