ISTANBUL — Turkey's prime minister took a combative stance on his closely watched return to the country early Friday, telling supporters who thronged to greet him that the protests that have swept the country must come to an end.

In the first extensive public show of support since anti-government protests erupted last week, more than 10,000 supporters cheered Recep Tayyip Erdogan with rapturous applause outside Istanbul's international airport.

Despite earlier comments that suggested he could be softening his stand, Erdogan delivered a fiery speech on his return from a four-day trip to North Africa. "These protests that are bordering on illegality must come to an end as of now," he said.

Tens of thousands of protesters have held demonstrations that have spread to dozens of cities across Turkey, sparked by the violent police reaction last Friday to what started out as a small protest against a plan to develop Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

Since then, three people have died – two protesters and a policeman – and thousands have been wounded. One protester is on life support in a hospital in Ankara.

Protesters from all walks of life have occupied the square and its park, objecting to what they say is Erdogan's increasingly autocratic and arrogant manner – charges he vehemently denies.

Turks have been awaiting Erdogan's words upon his return, seeing them as a signal of whether the demonstrations would fizzle or rage on.

Erdogan at times was almost drowned out by his supporters, part of the base that has helped him win three landslide elections. "God is Great," they chanted, and soon moved on to slogans referring specifically to the protesters in Taksim Square.

"Let us go, let us smash them," they shouted. "Istanbul is here, where are the looters?"

Erdogan had initially referred to the protesters as looters and troublemakers, while also acknowledging that excessive police force might have been used, and promising it would be investigated.

Erdogan's speech, delivered from atop an open-air bus outside the airport terminal, appeared at first to be an attempt to strike a unifying note.

"They say I am the prime minister of only 50 percent. It's not true. We have served the whole of the 76 million from the east to the west," he said, referring to his election win in 2011, when he took 50 percent of the vote.

"Together we are Turkey. Together we are brothers," he said, adding "We have never endeavored to break hearts. We are in favor of mending hearts."

But he soon became more combative.

"We have never been for building tension and polarization. But we cannot applaud brutality," he said.

In his last speech in Tunisia before flying to Istanbul, Erdogan had said that terrorist groups were involved in the protests, saying they had been identified.

In a twist, Erdogan implied that bankers were also part of a conspiracy that was fuelling the protests. He added that the flames of dissent had been fanned by other groups too.

"Those who call themselves journalists, artists, politicians, have, in a very irresponsible way, opened the way for hatred, discrimination and provocation," he said.

Speaking before Erdogan's return, Koray Caliskan, professor of political science and international relations at Bosporus University, pointed out that the prime minister was maintaining a hard line because "until now Erdogan had always gained support by increasing the tension in the country."

"Turkey is absolutely at a crossroads. Erdogan won't be able to point at Turkey as a model of democracy anymore," he said.

In his earlier comments in Tunisia, Erdogan acknowledged that some Turks were involved in the protests out of environmental concerns, and said he had "love and respect" for them.

Those comments don't appear to have swayed many of the thousands of protesters who thronged the square for a sixth day Thursday. More than 10,000 others filled a busy street in a middle class area of Ankara.

"I do not believe his sincerity," said protester Hazer Berk Buyukturca.

Turkey's main stock market revealed the fears that Erdogan's comments would do little to defuse the protesters, with the general price index plunging by 8 percent after his comments on concerns that continuing unrest would hit the country's economy.

Over the past week the demonstrations have spread to 78 cities, growing into public venting of what protesters perceive to be Erdogan's increasing arrogance. That includes attempts to impose what many say are restrictive mores on their personal lives, such as how many children to have or whether to drink alcohol.

So far, 4,300 people have been hurt or sought medical attention for the effects of tear gas during the protests, the Turkish Human Rights Foundation said. One person is on life support in Ankara.

Interior Minister Muammer Guler said more than 500 police officers had been injured. A total of 746 protests had erupted, causing some 70 million Turkish Lira ($37 million) in damages, he said. Nearly 80 protesters were still hospitalized, and almost all detained protesters had been released.

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Fraser reported from Ankara. Ezgi Akin in Ankara contributed.

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  • Turkish protesters clash with Turkish riot policemen on Taksim square in Istanbul on June 22, 2013. Turkish police used water cannon today to disperse thousands of demonstrators who had gathered anew in Istanbul's Taksim Square, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters hold up their hands as they gather on Taksim square before clashes with Turkish riot police in Istanbul on June 22, 2013 during a wave of new protests. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters hold up their hands as they gather on Taksim square before clashing with Turkish riot police in Istanbul on June 22, 2013. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A man bleeds from a head wound as Turkish police clash with anti-government protestors while they clear Taksim Square and push them down the Istikhlal shopping avenue on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • A man braces against a shield as Turkish police clash with anti-government protestors while they clear Taksim Square and push them down the Istikhlal shopping avenue on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • An anti goverment protestor waves a Turkish flag with a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey on Taksim square during the clash between riot Police and protestors in Istanbul on June 22, 2013. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters raise their hands as they gather on Taksim square during the clash between riot police and protestors in Istanbul on June 22, 2013. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Cyclists ride bikes during the silent protest at Taksim Square on June 23, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz, nicknamed 'The Standing Man,' became a new symbol of the anti-government protests after a eight-hour vigil in Taksim Square. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

  • Turkish anti-government protestors gather in Taksim Square carrying carnations to mark the four people killed in weeks of protest on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • Turkish anti-government protestors push back on a police car, carnations sitting to mark the four people killed in weeks of protest, as police move into clear Taksim Square in Istanbul, on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • Turkish anti-government protestors gather in Taksim Square carrying carnations to mark the four people killed in weeks of protest on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • Turkish riot police argue with anti-government protestors as they begin moving in to clear Taksim Square, on June 22, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

  • People stand during a silent protest at Taksim Square on June 23, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz, nicknamed 'The Standing Man,' became a new symbol of the anti-government protests after a eight-hour vigil in Taksim Square. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

  • People stand during a silent protest at Taksim Square on June 23, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz, nicknamed 'The Standing Man,' became a new symbol of the anti-government protests after a eight-hour vigil in Taksim Square. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

  • A protester reacts in pain to a salvo of tear gas fired by Turkish riot police officers to chase out demonstrators and to dismantle the tent camp set up by demonstrators in Gezi Park in Istanbul on June 15, 2013. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • People light candles for the victims of the protests at Taksim square, in Istanbul, early Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • Protesters try to resist the advance of riot police in Gezi park in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • A protester reacts as police throw tear gas among tents during an operation to evacuate the Gezi Park of Taksim Square in Istanbul, Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

  • Police enter to evacuate the Gezi Park in Istanbul, Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

  • Protesters try to resist the advance of riot police in Gezi park in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, June 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • People march from Anatolian side to European side to Taksim square in Istanbul, on June 16, 2013. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Protesters take cover from a water cannon during clashes with riot police at a demonstration in Ankara on June 16, 2013. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A pretzel vendor walks in front of a line of Turkish police cordoning off Taksim Square, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • A protester reacts as Turkish riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, in city's main Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • As police vehicles rolled into Kizilay Square, one woman approached a lightly armored truck bearing the logo of the police anti-terrorism department and grabbed a side window to ask those inside: "What is this oppression? Have you no fear of God? I have no children, but all of these (demonstrators) are my children!" she said, motioning to the young protesters nearby, in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • A protester reacts as Turkish riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, in city's main Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • In this Saturday, June 15, 2013, file photo, protesters try to resist the advance of riot police in Gezi park in Istanbul, Turkey. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

  • Turkish protesters hold a massive rally on John F. Kennedy street near the U.S. Embassy, shouting slogans such as "government, resign!" in Ankara, Turkey, early Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • In this Tuesday, June 11, 2013, file photo, a protester tries to remain standing as a police water cannon fires water during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis, File)

  • In this Tuesday, June 11, 2013, file photo, a protester tries protect from water projected by a water canon from police during clashes in Taksim square in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis)

  • People carry the coffin of Ethem Sarisuluk, one of five people killed during the recent protests in Turkey, as Turkish riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, in city's main Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013. (AP Photo )

  • Police fire tear gas as riot police spray water cannon at demonstrators who remained defiant after authorities evicted activists from an Istanbul park, making clear they are taking a hardline against attempts to rekindle protests that have shaken the country, near city's main Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, June 16, 2013.(AP Photo )

  • Anti-government protesters demonstrate in central Ankara on June 17, 2013. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Anti-government protesters demonstrate in central Ankara on June 17, 2013. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • People walk during a rally by the labor unions in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 17, 2013. (AP Photo)

  • People shout anti-government slogans during a rally by the labor unions in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 17, 2013. (AP Photo)

  • Erdem Gunduz, right, stands silently on Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, early Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP Photo)

  • A protester stands in a silent protest at Taksim Square in, Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. After weeks of sometimes-violent confrontation with police, Turkish protesters have found a new form of resistance: standing still and silent. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

  • Mert Solkiran, centre, stands in a silent protest at Taksim Square in, Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. After weeks of sometimes-violent confrontation with police, Turkish protesters have found a new form of resistance: standing still and silent. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

  • Erdem Gunduz, left, and dozens of people stand silently on Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, early Tuesday, June 18, 2013. After weeks of confrontation with police, sometimes violent, Turkish protesters are using a new form of resistance: standing silently. The development started late Monday when a solitary man began standing in passive defiance against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authority at Istanbul's central Taksim Square. The square has been sealed off from mass protests since police cleared it over the weekend. The man has identified himself as Erdem Gunduz, a performance artist. His act has sparked imitation by others in Istanbul and other cities. It has provoked widespread comment on social media. (AP Photo)

  • Protestors stand in a silent protest at Taksim Square in, Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. After weeks of sometimes-violent confrontation with police, Turkish protesters have found a new form of resistance: standing still and silent. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

  • A man sleeps at Taksim's Gezi Park early on June 12, 2013 in Istanbul, hours after riot police invated the square. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Demonstrators wait at the entrance of Taksim Gezi park on June 12, 2013. (GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Turkish lawyers march in support of anti-government protests in Ankara, on June 12, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

  • Demonstrators wait at the entrance of the Taksim Gezi park on June 12, 2013 after a night of running battles with riot police as Turkish Prime Minister moved to crush mass demos against his Islamic-rooted government. (GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Lawyers and members of the Turkish bar association shout slogans as they march in support of anti-government protests in Ankara, on June 12, 2013. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Turkish lawyers march in support of anti-government protests in Ankara, on June 12, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

  • Riot police fire tear gas to disperse the crowd during a demonstration near Taksim Square on June 11, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

  • Protesters clash with riot police at Taksim square in Istanbul on June 11, 2013. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Riot police fire tear gas to disperse the crowd during a demonstration near Taksim Square on June 11, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

  • An injured person is helped by fellow protesters during clashes with police on Taksim square in Istanbul, on June 11, 2013. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)