Tension mounts in Spain as Catalonia leaders defy king

‘We will declare independence in a matter of days’

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Spain’s King Felipe VI addresses the nation in Madrid on Tuesday, as the country grapples with its biggest political crisis in decades over an independence drive in Catalonia. — AFP

BARCELONA, Spain — Tension mounted in Spain on Wednesday after Catalonia’s leader vowed that the region would declare independence within days, defying a stern warning from the country’s king that national stability was in peril.

The courts meanwhile placed Catalan police officials and pro-independence civil leaders under investigation for alleged “sedition” as Spain sank deeper into its worst political crisis in decades.

King Felipe VI branded the independence drive illegal and undemocratic, throwing his weight behind the national government.

But Catalan leaders dug in, buoyed by anger at a violent police crackdown against voters during Sunday’s referendum on independence which had been banned by Madrid and the courts.

The Catalan government will “act at the end of this week or the beginning of next” to declare independence, its leader Carles Puigdemont told the BBC in an interview.

The Catalan government’s spokesman Jordi Turull added on Wednesday: “We have nearly finished counting the votes.”

The result will be submitted to the regional parliament which will have two days “to proclaim the independence of Catalonia,” he said in a television interview.

The move would intensify the standoff with the central government, which along with the national courts has branded the referendum illegal.

The national government has the power to suspend the semi-autonomous status that Catalonia currently enjoys under Spain’s system of regional government.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has yet to respond publicly to Sunday’s vote, but the king’s intervention could clear the way for him to act.

“It is the responsibility of the legitimate state powers to ensure constitutional order,” Felipe said.

The king, 49, abandoned his previously measured tone over tensions with Catalonia, accusing its leaders of acting outside the law.

“With their irresponsible conduct they could put at risk the economic and social stability of Catalonia and all of Spain,” he said.

Felipe’s dramatic intervention was a gauge of tension in Spain, which he said is “going through a very serious moment for our democratic life.”

Hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied in fury on Tuesday over violence by Spanish riot police against voters taking part in the referendum on Sunday.

A general strike in the region shut down tourist sites, Barcelona football Club and the city’s major port.

Felipe repeated his earlier calls for harmony between Spaniards.

But after Sunday’s violence it risked further fanning resentment in Catalonia.

“The king’s speech was irresponsible,” said Turull.

“Instead of calming things, what it did was throw fuel on the fire.”

People watching in Barcelona whistled and booed after the king’s speech.

“He did not say a word about the people who were injured,” said Domingo Gutierrez, a 61-year-old trucker.

“I have never been pro-independence, my parents are from Andalucia. But now I am more for independence than anyone, thanks to people like that.”

Adding to tensions, a judge on Wednesday placed Catalonia’s regional police chief Josep Luis Trapero and three other suspects under investigation for an alleged “crime of sedition.”

The force has been accused of failing to rein in pro-independence protesters during disturbances in Barcelona last month.

The judge leading the judicial investigation, Carmen Lamela, also summoned the leaders of two prominent Catalan pro-independence civil groups: Jordi Cuixart of Omnium Cultural and Jordi Sanchez of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC).

The fourth suspect is another senior police official. — AFP


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