WASHINGTON (AP) — A close ally of Turkey’s prime minister said Tuesday that his government respects the right to non-violent protest and free speech, but that it must also protect its citizens against violence.

At an event in Washington with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan was mostly conciliatory about the thousands of protesters in Turkey who have been expressing discontent with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 10-year rule. But he also implied without citing evidence that some were provoking violence for political ends.

“We should be very careful when we evaluate the recent ongoing events in Turkey,” he said. “There is a need for a strict distinction between the terrorist groups or illegal organizations versus citizens who are purely protesting on a non-violent basis.”

Speaking before Babacan at the American-Turkish Council’s annual conference, Biden said that only Turks can solve the problems behind the protests but that the U.S. is concerned and isn’t indifferent to the outcome.

“It raises concerns around the world, including in our own country,” he said.

Tens of thousands of mostly secular-minded Turks have joined anti-government rallies since Friday, when police launched a pre-dawn 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 anti-government disturbances in years.

Biden said the U.S. supports free assembly, a free press and nonviolence by government and demonstrators. He said Turkey should not choose between democracy and economic progress.

Babacan’s comments followed an apology Tuesday by fellow Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, who called the crackdown on protesters “wrong and unjust.”

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 and says he respects all lifestyles.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.