Hundreds of thousands of Catalans marched peacefully through Barcelona on Saturday in support of calls to free jailed separatist leaders, after the region's mayors demanded it be allowed to map out its own political future.
The city has witnessed daily pro-secession demonstrations since Oct. 14, when Spain's Supreme Court jailed nine politicians and activists for up to 13 years for their role in a failed independence bid in 2017.
Grassroots groups Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural had hoped Saturday's march would draw the largest crowds of any since the sentences were passed, acting as a counterweight to unrest that marred some demonstrations last week, when one gathering drew an estimated 500,000.
Local police put Saturday's attendance at 350,000.
Both groups eschew violence and their leaders are among the nine serving jail terms.
At the head of the march was regional government head Quim Torra, who earlier told hundreds of Catalan mayors after they endorsed a document demanding self-determination: "We have to be capable of creating a republic of free men and woman ... and overcoming the confrontational dynamic with a constructive one."
'SIT AND TALK'
Saturday's crowd included many carrying Catalan pro-independence flags and banners bearing slogans that included: "Prison is not the solution", "Sit and talk" and "Freedom for political prisoners".
One marcher, 65-year-old Francesc Dot, said the nine leaders had been jailed in defence of "Spain's unity."
His wife, Maria Dolors Rustarazo, 63, said she should also be in prison because she voted in the 2017 referendum, which Spanish courts outlawed. "If (all separatist votes)... have to go to jail, we will go but I don't think we would all fit," she said.
She condemned last week's rioting, which had hurt the pro-independence movement, but had understanding for young protesters being "angry at the lack of democracy".
Maria Llopart, 63, criticised a lack of unity among the two main Catalan separatist political movements. "Everything looks very bad, we are not advancing," she said.
Junts per Catalunya, which controls the regional presidency, has been in favour of maintaining a confrontational stance with Madrid, while its leftist coalition partner Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya favours dialogue.
Torra, who belongs to Junts per Catalunya but is not currently affiliated to any party, called in an interview with Reuters this week for Madrid to open talks with a view to the region holding a second referendum.
Spain's main parties, including the minority Socialist government, have consistently rejected any moves towards secession, a stance they have reiterated in recent days as the country gears up for a national election on Nov. 10.
Addressing a party rally in Tenerife on Saturday, acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called last week's unrest in Barcelona "an attack ...on Catalan society".
The region's electorate is split over the issue of independence, and supporters of continued unity with Spain will hold a rival rally in Barcelona on Sunday that the leaders of the country two main centre-right parties, PP and Ciudadanos, are due to attend.