Separatists in Catalonia block roads, rail line a year after vote

AFP , Monday 1 Oct 2018

Students attend a demonstration marking the first anniversary of Catalonia's banned independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, October 1, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

Pro-independence protesters obstructed major roads and a high-speed railway line in Spain's Catalonia region on Monday, one year after a banned referendum on secession marred by police violence.

"Everything began on October 1 and everything goes back to October 1," the region's separatist president Quim Torra said.

He was speaking at a ceremony in Sant Julia de Ramis, northern Catalonia, on a stage next to a large black and white banner that read "No forgetting, no forgiving."

Ten kilometres (six miles) away in Girona, hundreds of activists, many covering their faces with scarves, occupied high-speed railway tracks for around three hours, blocking services linking Figueres, Girona and Barcelona, Spain's state-owned rail operator Renfe said.

Central streets in Barcelona and Lleida were blocked, as was the AP-7 motorway, south of Barcelona, and A2 linking the city to Madrid, images on Catalan TV showed.

Activists also got into Catalonia's regional government building in Girona and took away the facade's Spanish flag, replacing it with a red, yellow and blue separatist flag.

In his speech, Torra praised their actions, saying they were "doing well in putting on the pressure."

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who is Catalan, said it was up to Torra and the Catalan regional government to main public order.

"We will continue to try to lower tensions...and demand that everyone assume their responsibilities," he told reporters in Madrid.

- 'We have the power' -
A year after the contested October 1, 2017 referendum, disagreements over separatism have nevertheless deepened in the wealthy northeastern region of Spain, which is home to some 7.5 million people and has its own distinct language.

Far from uniting the community, it has polarised opinion, leaving deep divisions over the region's fate.

The independence movement itself is divided and rudderless, with the separatist parties that have an absolute majority in the regional parliament split on what strategy to pursue to break from Spain -- direct confrontation or moderation.

The protests were called online by grassroots group the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs), founded to help stage last year's banned referendum and now demanding a clean break with the Spanish state.

"A year ago we voted for independence... Let's act," the CDRs tweeted.

Some 500 people marched through Barcelona, setting off firecrackers and chanting "We voted and we won". Some called for Torra to resign for not pushing hard enough for independence.

Ana Sarabia, 48, said she was "disappointed" because Catalan leaders had not implemented independence as promised.

"We want to show them that they are where they are thanks to the people and that we have the power. If they don't do anything, we will act," she told AFP at the demonstration.

Already on Saturday, Barcelona was the scene of unrest, with 24 people injured and six detained when separatists clashed with police.

They were taking part in a demonstration called to counter a rally by police paying tribute to colleagues deployed to prevent the 2017 Catalan independence referendum.

- 'Damaged Spain's reputation' -
The Catalan government, then led by Carles Puigdemont, pushed ahead with the vote on secession despite the Spanish courts declaring it illegal.

The vote was marred by a violent police crackdown on polling stations that made headlines around the world.

A majority voted for independence, but turnout was low as opponents stayed away.

In a radio interview, the spokeswoman for the Socialist government in Madrid, Isabel Celaa, said the referendum had been "illegal" and had no "legal consequence".

But she said the sometimes violent police intervention to impede the vote -- as ordered by Spain's then conservative government -- was a mistake.

She said the footage of police charging at voters -- even if some of it was later found to be false -- "seriously damaged Spain's reputation" abroad.

After the Catalan government declared unilateral independence on October 27, Madrid swiftly sacked the Catalan government, prompting several key figures to flee abroad, including Puigdemont. Others were jailed.

In total, 13 separatist leaders have been charged with rebellion, nine of whom are in preventative custody in Spain awaiting trial, while four others are in self-exile in Belgium, Scotland and Switzerland.

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