Tensions rise as Catalan separatists take to the streets

Protesters vent anger at Madrid as state police amass in region ahead of referendum

Pro-referendum demonstrators brandish their ballots during a demonstration outside Barcelona’s university. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Pro-referendum demonstrators brandish their ballots during a demonstration outside Barcelona’s university. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

 

Demonstrators calling for Catalan independence gathered in hundreds of towns across the region yesterday following the Madrid government’s actions last week to try to block a referendum on self-rule that it considers illegal.

Spanish police have arrested Catalan officials who were involved in organising the October 1st vote and they also seized electoral material, including ballot papers and ballot boxes. This led to several days of protests in Barcelona.

But Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government, has said the referendum will go ahead.

Several thousand protesters gathered in central Barcelona yesterday chanting “We will vote!” and handing out ballot papers. The crowds began whistling and booing a police helicopter during speeches by the protest organisers, showing growing anger among the referendum supporters about the increased police presence.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 state police officers from other regions of Spain have arrived or are on their way to Catalonia.

“We feel occupied by the Spanish police,” interior designer Nuria Gimenez (56) said. “We’ve been protesting for 10 years. We’re not going to stop now with one week to go. We need to keep going until the end.”

Chain of command

On Saturday the state prosecutor in Catalonia told all local and national police forces they would be placed temporarily under a single chain of command and report directly to the interior ministry in Madrid.

The Catalan government initially said it would refuse the order, though the head of the Catalan regional police, known as the Mossos d’Esquadra, later said he would comply with prosecutors.

A woman wearing an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) in Barcelona. Photograph: Susana Vera/Reuters
A woman wearing an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) in Barcelona. Photograph: Susana Vera/Reuters

Speaking to the crowd in Barcelona, president of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell said separatists must resist “provocations” by the central government.

“They see violence in Catalonia. There has been none, nor will there be. We are a peaceful people and all we want is to exercise our rights,” Forcadell said.

Although polls show less than half of Catalonia’s 5.5 million voters want self-rule, most in the wealthy northeastern region want the chance to vote on the issue.

– (Reuters)