Catalonia’s pro-independence regional chief Quim Torra has called for talks with Spain’s central government following five days of unrest triggered by the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders.
“We urge the acting prime minister of the Spanish government to sit at a negotiating table to talk,” Mr Torra told reporters, adding that this week’s violence did not reflect the peaceful nature of the Catalan independence movement.
“Violence has never been and will never be our way, not in Barcelona, nor in Tarragona, nor in Lleida, nor in Girona,” he said, referring to cities in Catalonia that have been swept up in the recent mayhem.
Barcelona suffered its worst night of urban unrest in decades on Friday as masked youths blocked roads with blazing garbage bins and hurled rocks at security forces. Police responded firing repeated rounds of smoke grenades and tear gas.
Health authorities said 182 people across the region were hurt, including 152 in Barcelona. Some 17 police also needed hospital treatment in the city.
Police said they arrested 54 people on the fifth day of clashes which were sparked by Spain’s supreme court handing down lengthy prison terms to nine Catalan leaders who staged a banned referendum on independence in 2017.
Mr Torra earlier this week said Catalonia should hold a new vote on independence from Spain within two years. On Saturday he said the will of the people would be respected. “We will go as far as the people of Catalonia want to go,” he said.
Independence is a highly divisive issue in Catalonia, which is Spain’s wealthiest region, with a poll in July showing backing for secession at its lowest level in two years, with 48.3 per cent of people against and 44 per cent in favour.
Secretive new group
The separatist movement is proud of its history of mostly peaceful campaigning. Officials have accused a relatively small number of agitators of provoking the recent riots.
Spanish authorities suspect a secretive new group called Tsunami Democratic is using encrypted messages to orchestrate some of the attacks, which have included torched cars and burning barricades in the streets.
The group appeared on September 2nd and in just over six weeks has gained nearly 340,000 followers on its main channel in Telegram, a messaging app.
A National Court judge on Friday ordered the closure of websites linked to the group.
Rights group Amnesty International called on "all authorities" to refrain from contributing to the escalation of tensions in the streets and to respond "proportionally" to outbreaks of violence.
The group said in a statement that it had observed “various cases” of “excessive” use of police force, “including inappropriate and unjustified use of batons and other defensive equipment against people who posed no risk.”
But the interim interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, defended the police action as “proportionate” and warned Catalan separatists that Spain will apply the criminal code “with all its force,” threatening them with prison terms of up to six years.
Tourists also felt the turmoil. At least two large cruise operators diverted their ships to other ports, and those which had already docked in the port of Barcelona cancelled their passengers’ excursions to the city. Architect Antoni Gaudi’s modernist Sagrada Familia also closed its doors due to a protest blocking access to the basilica.
Naoya Suzuki, a 34-year-old tourist from Japan, complained about the disruptions to "people who have nothing to do with Spain."
“I’ve had a look at the news and I can just about understand why they are angry, but not why are they are doing all this and stopping the sightseeing of tourists,” he said.
Dozens of flights into and out of the region were cancelled due to the strike called by pro-independence unions. Picketers also blocked roads to the border with France and elsewhere, sometimes with burning tires.
Commuter and long-distance train services were significantly reduced, and many shops and factories didn’t open for business.
Spain's interim prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, said authorities would prosecute radicals who rioted this week while ensuring that peaceful protests can continue.
"Those who break the law have to answer for their deeds sooner or later," Mr Sanchez told a press conference in Brussels, where he was attending a European Union summit.
Mr Sanchez faces a general election in less than a month, and the tensions in Catalonia are a test of his political skills.
The former head of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, on Friday avoided being jailed after he voluntarily testified before Belgian judicial authorities over a new warrant that Spain issued this week following the Supreme Court sentences. He is also wanted for his part in the 2017 independence bid.
The Belgian judge ordered his release without bail but instructed him to remain in Belgium while awaiting an October 29th extradition hearing, the Belgian prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
Instability in Catalonia led to the postponement of next week's marquee soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The Spanish soccer federation said the game was being moved to avoid overlap with a large separatist rally, as officials fear more violence.