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Thousands protest over Catalonia independence poll violence

Barcelona football club refused to train as part of an accompanying strike, which officials said slowed down public transport and freight shipments in the port of Barcelona.

world Updated: Oct 03, 2017 20:44 IST
Protesters hold a Catalan flag as they gather outside National Police Headquarters during a one-day strike in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday.
Protesters hold a Catalan flag as they gather outside National Police Headquarters during a one-day strike in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday.(AP)

Several hundred thousand Catalans rallied on Tuesday in fury at police violence against voters during a banned independence referendum, as Madrid accused regional authorities of “inciting rebellion”.

Crowds yelled for national security forces to get out of the region, branding them “occupation forces”, as the national government’s standoff with the region dragged Spain deeper into its worst political crisis since emerging from dictatorship in 1977.

Demonstrators including students and young families filled the streets in the regional capital Barcelona waving red- and yellow-striped Catalan flags.

“Closed for revolution,” read one banner in the crowd.

Barcelona football club refused to train as part of an accompanying strike, which officials said slowed down public transport and freight shipments in the port of Barcelona.

“On October 1 we became an occupied country, and they still have not left,” said one protester in Barcelona, 56-year-old schoolteacher Antonia Maria Maura, referring to the police sent to prevent Sunday’s vote.

Police besieged

Pictures of police beating unarmed Catalan voters with batons and dragging some by the hair during Sunday’s ballots drew international criticism.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas warned Monday that “violence can never be an instrument in politics”.

But tensions rose further overnight as Catalans defied the Spanish government’s vows to keep Catalonia as one of Spain’s regions.

Catalan regional police officers walk through a street covered with ballots for the banned independence referendum thrown by people outside People's Party regional headquarters during a protest in Barcelona. (Reuters)

Protesters besieged Catalan hotels where state security forces were lodged, police groups said.

“They are fleeing from hotel to hotel, they are like rats who have to hide,” said the spokesman for Spain’s main police union SUP, Ramon Cosio.

He warned that the state was losing control of security.

At least one hotel said local authorities had ordered it to ask the police staying there to leave.

‘Inciting rebellion’

Spain’s national government and courts have ruled the independence referendum illegal and Madrid blames the Catalan regional authorities for the tensions.

“We see how day after day the government of Catalonia is pushing the population to the abyss and inciting rebellion in the streets,” Spain’s Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said on Tuesday.

He said his government would take “all measures necessary to stop acts of harassment”.

Tourist sites closed

Claims for independence for Catalonia date back centuries but have surged during recent years of economic crisis.

A rich industrial region of 7.5 million people that accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy, it has its own language and cultural traditions.

Catalan pro-separatist trade unions, schools and cultural institutions called Tuesday’s stoppage to “vigorously condemn” the police response to the poll.

Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont said nearly 900 people had received medical attention on Sunday, though regional authorities confirmed a total of 92 injured. Four were hospitalised, two in serious condition

Schools and some businesses shut down during Tuesday’s strike. Protesters stood on roads and highways across Catalonia, blocking traffic. On the highway linking Barcelona to France two youths set up a folding table and played chess.

Tourist sites like the city’s emblematic Sagrada Familia Church were closed.

At the city’s Sants train station all shops remained open except for the one run by Barcelona football club, which issued a statement saying both its professional and youth teams would not train on Tuesday.

Emergency talks

The government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy held emergency talks after Puigdemont declared Sunday that Catalonia had “won the right to an independent state”.

Puigdemont has appealed for international mediation to help solve the crisis.

The regional government said 2.26 million people took part in the poll, or just over 42 percent of the electorate.

But any attempt to unilaterally declare independence is likely to be opposed not just by Madrid but also a large section of the Catalan population, which polls indicate is split on the issue.

Puigdemont has said he will now present the results to the region’s parliament, where separatist lawmakers hold a majority, and which has the power to adopt a motion to declare independence.