As riot police used tear gas against protesters for a fourth straight day in Istanbul, Turkey’s president and prime minister displayed wide differences Monday in their responses to those taking to the streets. One death was reported.

Violent demonstrations have been staged in Turkey since Friday, when police launched a pre-dawn raid against a peaceful sit-in that protested plans to cut down trees in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square. Since then, the demonstrations by mostly secular-
minded Turks have spiraled into Turkey’s biggest anti-government disturbances in years.

The protests are seen as a display of frustration with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who critics say has become increasingly authoritarian. Many accuse him of forcing his conservative Islamic outlook on the lives of secular Turks.

Erdogan rejects the accusations, insisting that he respects all sections of Turkish society and has no desire to infringe on different lifestyles. He has also rejected accusations of being authoritarian, saying, “I am not a master but a servant” of the people.

Erdogan, in power since 2003 after winning three landslide elections, has inflamed tensions by calling the protesters “a bunch of looters” and a “minority” trying to force demands on his majority.

In contrast, President Abdullah Gul took a more conciliatory line, celebrating peaceful protest as a democratic right. The two men could compete against each other in next year’s presidential election.

In Washington, the Obama administration urged Turkish authorities to exercise restraint and all sides to refrain from violence.

The White House said the United States believes that the vast majority of those protesting have been peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Spokesman Jay Carney said they were ordinary citizens exercising their rights to free expression.

But Carney also said that all democracies have to work through issues, adding that Washington is concerned about Turkey’s response toward the protesters but expects the U.S. ally to resolve the matter while respecting its citizens’ rights.

Carney said the United States has concerns about reports of excessive use of force, and he called for those claims to be investigated.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has traveled to Turkey three times since becoming the top U.S. diplomat, said the United States is following the situation closely and is troubled by the reports of a police crackdown.

On Monday, Erdogan again dismissed the street protests as being organized by Turkey’s opposition and extremist groups and angrily rejected comparisons with the Arab Spring uprisings.

There was scattered violence in areas close to Erdogan’s offices in Istanbul and in Ankara, the capital. The Dogan news agency said that police fired tear gas at the scene of a demonstration near Erdogan’s Istanbul office and that protesters responded by hurling stones.

The news agency said that as many as 500 people in Ankara were detained overnight after police clashed with more-militant protesters and then moved in to break up several thousand people who were demonstrating peacefully. Turkey’s Fox television reported that 300 others were detained in Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city.

— Associated Press