Day-long separatist protest in Barcelona heads into night

Barcelona (AFP) –


"The time has come. Let's resist peacefully."

Thousands responded to the call to protest sent out by Catalan separatists on Wednesday, gathering in front of regional government buildings in Barcelona after police detained Catalan officials ahead of an independence referendum deemed illegal by Madrid.

Carrying banners that read "We will vote" and red-and-yellow separatist flags, they shouted "no pasaran" -- Spanish for "they shall not pass" and a cherished leftwing slogan of the 1936-39 Civil War.

At times, they stopped cars from entering or leaving, defiantly refusing to disperse as the day wore on.

But others looked on from afar, angry at what one called a "circus."

The protests topped weeks of rising tensions as separatist leaders in Catalonia, a region deeply divided over independence, press ahead with preparations for a referendum on October 1 that Madrid has banned and wants to stop at all costs.

Anger among supporters of independence spilled over onto the streets when the Guardia Civil police force detained 14 Catalan government officials.

"They made a big mistake," tweeted Jordi Sanchez, the head of the influential pro-independence citizens' organisation, the Catalan National Assembly.

"We wanted to vote and they declared war. Let's go out to defend our institutions in a non-violent way."

- Roads closed down -

His followers responded quickly.

Thousands gathered in front of the vice-presidency, hundreds more at the department for foreign affairs, dozens at that of public administration, at whose doors they left cardboard ballot boxes as a form of protest.

As the hours passed, the demonstration swelled.

Some protesters brought mattresses, saying they would sleep there.

Some of Barcelona's main roads had to be closed as protesters stayed there, shouting "independence," blowing whistles and jeering at the Guardia Civil, calling them "occupation forces."

"They probably didn't think we'd mobilise so much," said Joan Payola, holding a separatist flag.

"But they should know that whenever they do something, there will be more and more people."

Along with several colleagues from his architecture workshop some 20 kilometres (12 miles) away from Barcelona, he decided to leave work to come protest against what he said was "a state of emergency" imposed by the central government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Hundreds of metres (yards) away, the situation was even more tense despite attempts by a guitar player to calm spirits by singing John Lennon's "Imagine."

Hundreds of separatists blocked the departure of Guardia Civil vehicles from the department of foreign affairs to shouts of "no pasaran" and "without guns you're nothing."

The tension surged when officers tried to push sitting protesters out of the way to let police vehicles through.

These responded by hitting the cars, insulting them, forcing the officers and vehicles to stay put for hours.

- Defend polling stations -

For others, this was more of a "circus."

"It's a show. Like in the Roman empire: if there were problems, they put on a show for the people to keep themselves entertained. And look, now no-one talks of corruption," said Alejandro Estragues, a 40-year-old who works in 3D printing.

For David Garcia, "independence seems dangerous. There are a lot of people suffering due to the economy, health, unemployment, terrorism. Now's the time to join forces."

Madrid has multiplied measures to stop the referendum, including threatening to arrest mayors who facilitate the vote deemed illegal by the Constitutional Court if they refuse to comply with a criminal probe, seizing millions of ballot papers and tightening control over the region's finances.

The constitution states that the unity of the Spanish nation is "unbreakable" and that only the central government has the power to call a referendum on any matter.

Separatists in Catalonia, a region with its own language and customs, have retorted they have a democratic right to decide on their future.

The main protest on Wednesday took place in front of the vice-presidency, which is in charge of preparing the referendum.

Among the thousands was Anna Sola, an unemployed 45-year-old in a wheelchair.

She says she is ready to defend polling stations on October 1.

"If needs be we will get up at five in the morning and will go to the polling station."