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Catalans rally in fury – Pique lightning rod in Catalonia chaos

Protesters gather at the Place de la Universitat Square during a general strike in Catalonia called by Catalan unions in Barcelona, on Oct 3. Large numbers of Catalans are expected to observe a general strike to condemn police violence at a banned weekend referendum on independence, as Madrid comes under growing international pressure to resolve its worst political crisis in decades. (AFP)

BARCELONA, Oct 3, (AFP): Several hundred thousand Catalans rallied 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 fl ags. “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. 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. 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. 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”. 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. Spain’s interior minister on Tuesday accused Catalonia’s government of “inciting rebellion” after police sent to the region to block a weekend independence referendum were harassed by protesters. “We see how day after day the government of Catalonia is pushing the population to the abyss and incites rebellion in the streets,” Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said, adding his government would take measures to “stop the acts of harassment”.

Barcelona star Gerard Pique’s tears of sadness and the vast empty stands as his team reluctantly played were two of the defining images of a violence-scarred independence referendum in Catalonia. Pique, an outspoken defender of the wealthy northeastern Spanish region’s right to self-determination, had been able to cast his vote in an independence referendum deemed illegal by Madrid without obstruction on Sunday morning. Others were not so lucky as police fired rubber bullets and forced their way into activist-held polling stations to confiscate ballots, in many cases by violently removing activists. Clashes left at least 92 people confirmed injured out of a total of 844 who needed medical attention, according to Catalan authorities. “I am very proud of Catalonia and all its people,” an emotional Pique told reporters as tears welled up in his eyes after a routine 3-0 win over Las Palmas in an empty Camp Nou on an otherwise extraordinary day.

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