ISTANBUL- Thousands of angry Turks poured into the streets on Saturday to join mass anti-government protests, defying Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call to end the worst civil unrest of his decade-long rule.

Protesters blew whistles and waved flags inIstanbul’sTaksim Square, the epicentre of the protests which erupted on May 31, while others brought blankets and food to settle in for the weekend at the adjoiningGeziPark, now a festival-like camp site.

“A week ago, I could never imagine myself sleeping out on the streets ofIstanbul,” said 22-year-old Aleyna, wrapped up under a blanket with a stray kitten, pointing to her dirty clothes. “Now I don’t know how I can ever go back.”

Fresh rallies were also held in the capitalAnkara, with over a thousand people gathering peacefully in the centralKizilay Square, singing revolutionary songs and dancing.

Erdogan, meanwhile, was meeting inIstanbulwith top officials of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to discuss the crisis, and a deputy prime minister was due to make a speech later on Saturday.

Turkey’s assertive leader on Friday called for an immediate end to the protests, saying his Islamic-rooted government was open to “democratic demands” but insisting that the protests were “bordering on vandalism”.

The political turmoil erupted after police cracked down heavily on a small campaign to saveGeziParkfrom demolition, spiralling into nationwide protests against Erdogan and the AKP, seen as increasingly authoritarian.

Police have used tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have left three dead and thousands injured, tarnishingTurkey’s image as a model of Islamic democracy.

In a bid to calm tensions, Istanbul’s mayor Kadir Topbas on Saturday said the park would not be turned into a shopping mall, as some feared.

But the reconstruction of Ottoman-era military barracks at the site would go ahead, he said, echoing earlier comments by Erdogan. “The plan for the barracks was part of our election promises,” the mayor told reporters.

Erdogan has faced international condemnation for his handling of the unrest inTurkey, a NATO member and key strategic partner for theUnited Statesand other Western allies.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, speaking inIstanbulon Friday, called for a “swift and transparent” probe into the protest violence.

But Erdogan accused his critics of double standards, saying those involved in a similar protest would in any European country “face a harsher response”.

Only oneIstanbulsuburb saw fresh clashes overnight, with police using tear gas and water cannon on protesters who reportedly threw fireworks and homemade bombs at them. Taksim itself has been free of a police presence since officers relinquished the square to protesters last Saturday after the government acknowledged it was the police’s heavy-handed response that fueled the unrest.

— ‘I like being here to make a point’ —

Bracing for Erdogan’s reaction to their continued demonstrations, many said they felt safe in Taksim, as local media reportedIstanbulpolice would not interfere with their action over the weekend.

“I don’t like protests or riots or stuff like that. But I like being here to make a point,” said Emre Altinok, 22, on his way to a yoga session in Gezi Park, a rolled-up mat under his arm.

The young investment banker said he doubted the protests would lead to Erdogan’s resignation “but now he knows he’s not going to be able to say or do anything he wants”.

The national doctors’ union says the civil unrest has so far left two protesters and a policeman dead while almost 4,800 people have been injured across Turkey.

Critics accuse Erdogan, in power since 2002, of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation, and of pushing grandiose urban development projects at the expense of local residents.

Explaining their anger in a full-page ad in the New York Times Friday, supporters of the protest movement said Turks have seen their civil rights and freedoms steadily erode, with many journalists, artists and elected officials arrested.

Opposition to Erdogan is intense, but the 59-year-old is the country’s most popular politician, with his AKP winning three elections in a row and gaining almost 50 percent of votes in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.