Catalan leader threatens independence after chaotic vote


Catalonia's leader Carles Puigdemont said on Sunday the region won the right to break away from Spain after 'millions' turned out to vote in an independence referendum banned by Madrid and marred by clashes.

The Catalan government said around 2.26 million people had cast a ballot in a banned referendum to leave Spain on Sunday and 90 percent of them had voted in favour of secession.

This represents a turnout of around 42.3 percent of Catalonia's 5.34 million voters.

However Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the plebiscite had been blocked, saying "today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia."

At least 92 people were confirmed injured out of a total of 844 who needed medical attention, Catalan authorities said, as police cracked down on a vote Spain's central government branded a "farce".

The interior ministry said 33 police required treatment as a result of the clashes.

The violence raised alarm abroad and further heightened tensions between Rajoy's government and the authorities in Catalonia in the worst political crisis in Spain in decades.

Barcelona beat Las Palmas 3-0 behind closed doors at Camp Nou, preserving their 100 per cent record in LaLiga against the backdrop of unrest.

Catalonia firefighters shield protesters during clash in Girona, Spain
Catalonia firefighters shield protesters during clash in Girona, Spain

Rajoy called the vote a process that "only served to sow division, push citizens to confrontation and the streets to revolt", but left the door potentially open to negotiations on greater autonomy for the region.

The referendum was organised under the threat of reprisals and criminal charges but thousands of Catalans stood in defiance of the central government crying "Votarem" -- "We will vote".

Puigdemont, who governs Catalonia, said in an address after polls closed: "With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic."

He added that "millions" had turned out to vote and urged the European Union stop looking "the other way" following a police crackdown.

Barcelona beat Las Palmas 3-0 behind closed doors at Camp Nou, preserving their 100 per cent record in LaLiga against the backdrop of unrest.


Barcelona-Las Palmas is played behind closed doors
Barcelona-Las Palmas is played behind closed doors

Camped inside overnight

From early in the day, helmeted police armed with batons moved in en masse to seal off polling stations and seize ballot boxes, sparking clashes.

Videos posted on social media show police dragging voters from polling stations by their hair, throwing people down stairs and attacking Catalan firefighters who were protecting polling stations.

"They took the ballot boxes by force... and they literally yanked them from us as we continued to sing 'Els Segadors', the Catalan hymn, and shouting "long live democracy'," said Marc Carrasco, in charge at one Barcelona polling station.

In the second such vote in three years, more than 5.3 million people were called on to have their say on independence from Spain in the wealthy northeastern region which has its own distinct language and culture.

They were asked: "Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?"

The referendum law foresees a declaration of independence within 48 hours of a 'Yes' vote but it remains unclear if the regional government will actually do so.

Mariano Rajoy: Today there was no independence vote in Catalonia
Mariano Rajoy: Today there was no independence vote in Catalonia

More than 40 unions and Catalan associations called a region-wide strike on Tuesday after the police crackdown on the vote.

Even before the vote, judicial officials ordered police to seize ballot papers, detain key organisers and shut down websites promoting the referendum after Madrid and the courts deemed it unconstitutional.

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria called on the Catalan authorities to call off what she dismissed as a "farce".

Thousands of people had gathered outside polling stations before dawn, joining those who had spent the night camped inside to ensure they would be open on the day.

In central Barcelona, riot police charged at demonstrators who were sitting on the ground at a polling station, and fired rubber bullets, witnesses said.

Anti-referendum rally in heart of Catalonia
Anti-referendum rally in heart of Catalonia

'Unjustified violence'

The crackdown drew a sharp rebuke from Catalan leaders and others including Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party. 

Earlier Puigdemont said the police had used "batons, rubber bullets and indiscriminate force" against people demonstrating "peacefully".

Riot police also stormed a polling station near Girona, smashing the glass doors of the sports centre where Puigdemont was due to vote and cutting a chain to force their way in. 

But the regional government said Puigdemont had managed to vote anyway in nearby Cornella del Terri, and in several areas voting was reported to be peaceful. 

The trouble caused Barcelona football club to play its La Liga tie against Las Palmas behind closed doors after the Spanish league refused to postpone the match.

Under a sea of umbrellas outside a school in Barcelona, a crowd gathered, among them elderly people in wheelchairs, families with buggies and parents clutching toddlers by the hand. 

With no police in sight, they were able to cast their ballots, prompting scenes of jubilation. 

"I've voted! I've voted," one man shouted. 

"That's the great hope, to be able to vote freely like this despite the problems we've faced, I'm very happy. I can die peacefully," added Jose Mas Ribas, 79.

Overtaxed, underfunded

Although Catalans are divided over independence, most want to vote on the matter in a legal and binding plebiscite.

Pro-separatist lawmakers have pushed for a referendum since September 2015 when they won a narrow majority in Catalonia's parliament. 

Although Catalonia already has significant control over education, healthcare and welfare, the region says it pays more in taxes than it receives from Madrid.

This has sparked resentment which has been further exacerbated by Spain's economic woes and helped push the secessionist cause.

Rajoy's government has come under fire for limiting its response to the crisis, and several leftwing politicians called on Sunday for him to resign. 

"The state needs to explain the benefits of remaining united, instead of repeating all the time that the referendum is illegal," said Rafael Castillo, a 59-year-old engineer at a Madrid rally, wearing a scarf with the Spanish flag around his neck.

Source AFP - SBS

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