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Originally published June 2, 2013 at 6:29 AM | Page modified June 3, 2013 at 3:16 AM

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Erdogan maintains hard stance on protests

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday again dismissed street protests against his rule as actions organized by extremists, described them as a temporary bleep and angrily rejected comparisons with the Arab Spring uprisings.

Associated Press

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ANKARA, Turkey —

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday again dismissed street protests against his rule as actions organized by extremists, described them as a temporary bleep and angrily rejected comparisons with the Arab Spring uprisings.

Appearing defensive and angry on the fourth day of disturbances, he lashed out at reporters who asked whether the government had understood "the message" by protesters airing grievances or whether he would soften his tone.

"What is the message? I want to hear it from you," Erdogan retorted.

"What can a softened tone be like? Can you tell me?" he said. He spoke to reporters before leaving on what was planned to be a four-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Turkey has been hit my demonstrations since Friday that grew out of anger over excessive police force against protesters holding a sit-in to prevent the uprooting of trees at Istanbul's main Taksim Square. The demonstrations have since spiraled into Turkey's biggest anti-government disturbances in years, challenging Erdogan's power.

The demonstrators, mostly secular-minded Turks, took to the street airing frustrations at Erdogan's abrasive and non-compromising style as well as the heavy-handed police response to protests. Some of the protesters clashed with police, but most of the protesters demonstrated peacefully. Erdogan has called the protesters "a bunch of looters."

Violence flared in Istanbul early on Monday between a group of demonstrators and police on the fourth day. The Dogan news agency said police fired tear gas at the group in an area close to Erdogan's Istanbul office. The protesters responded by hurling stones.

The agency said as many as 500 people were detained overnight Monday after police broke up protests by several thousands of people in the capital Ankara. Turkey's Fox television reported 300 others detained in a similar crackdown in Izmir, Turkey's third-largest city.

Erdogan described some of the protesters as "naïve, decent and participating (in demonstrations) by following information on social media" but claimed the protests were being organized by Turkey's opposition party and extremist groups.

He also blamed the protest on "internal and external" groups bent on harming Turkey, said the country's intelligence service was working on identifying them and threatened to hit back at them.

"We shall be discussing these with them and will be following up, in fact we will also settle accounts with them," he said.

Turkey's main stock exchange has dropped by 6.43 percent on opening on Monday, as investors worried about the destabilizing effect of the demonstrations on the economy.

Erdogan played down its significance, saying: "It's the stock market, it goes down and it goes up. It can't always be stable."

He rejected any comparison to the Arab Spring uprisings.

"We already have a spring in Turkey," alluding to the nation's free elections. "But there are those who want to turn this spring into winter.

"Be calm, these will all pass," he said.

In Iraq meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in comments posted on his official website that his government was worried about the security implications of the situation in Turkey, saying the country was "an essential part of the stability of the region."

"We believe that resorting to violence will widen the circle (of violence) ... in the region, and we call for restraint," he said.

Iraq and Turkey share a long, mountainous border. Iraq is home to an ethnic Turkomen minority, centered around the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk, whose well-being has long been a concern for Ankara.

The two countries' relationship is increasingly strained over growing Turkish ties to Iraq's largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, and over Turkey's support for the Sunni rebels fighting to topple the Syrian regime. The Syrian civil war is exacerbating sectarian divisions within Iraq, and Baghdad has warned that the fall of the Iranian-backed Syrian government could ignite a wider conflict in the region.

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Associated Press writer Adam Schreck in Baghdad contributed.

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