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Catalan leader ready for vote that Madrid says won't happen

Lluis Gene, AFP | People wave "Estelada" flags during the closing meeting of the Catalan pro-independence groups and political parties in Barcelona on September 29, 2017.

Catalonia's leader has made clear his government is determined to go ahead with an independence vote on Sunday that Madrid calls illegal, thrusting Spain into its most dramatic political crisis for decades.

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The central government, which has sent thousands of police reinforcements to the region to stop people voting and which has attempted to dismantle the infrastructure put in place to hold the ballot, insisted on Friday the referendum would not happen.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont told Reuters in an interview, however: "Everything is prepared at the more than 2,000 voting points so they have ballot boxes and voting slips, and have everything people need to express their opinion."

At a news conference, regional officials displayed one of the white plastic ballot boxes, bearing the crest of the regional government. Puigdemont has said more than 6,000 of the boxes are being kept in a secret place.

Catalans occupy schools to defend independence vote

In another blow to preparations for the referendum, Catalonia's High Court ordered Google to delete a smartphone application that the Catalan government was using to spread information about the vote. Puigdemont on Wednesday tweeted a link to download the application on the Google Play smartphone app store.

A Google spokeswoman in Spain said Google removes content from its platforms when it receives a court order.

Courts have also ordered police to cordon off schools scheduled to be used as ballot stations. In a bid to keep them open, parents have called for a mass school sleepover this weekend, with tents and sleeping bags, free paella and cinema. Organisers said 60,000 had already registered to participate.

Separatists have called on people to turn out early at polling stations in a mass statement of "peaceful resistance", even if they are prevented from voting.

"I don't believe there will be anyone who will use violence or who will want to provoke violence that will tarnish the irreproachable image of the Catalan independence movement as pacifist," Puigdemont said.

Sebastian Balfour, emeritus professor of contemporary Spanish studies at LSE, discusses the Catalan situation

Criminal charges

Madrid, which claims the authority of a constitution that declares the country to be indivisible, remained implacably opposed to the vote, but also expressed the hope Sunday would be peaceful.

"I insist that there will be no referendum on Oct. 1," central government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told a news conference following the weekly cabinet meeting. He said organisers would face criminal charges for trying to hold it.

Hundreds of thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against Madrid's campaign to suppress the referendum. Police have confiscated thousands of voting slips, and courts have fined and threatened to arrest regional officials.

In a sign that large crowds are expected on the streets on Sunday, department store chain El Corte Ingles said it would shut three stores in central Barcelona. The central government said airspace above the city would be partly restricted.

Lines of tractors draped in the red-and-yellow striped Catalan flag left provincial towns on Friday, planning to converge on Barcelona in a sign of support for the referendum.

Puigdemont called on the police not to act in a "political" way when carrying out their duties on Sunday.

"I would like them to use the same standards that the Catalan regional police use. Not political standards, not on political orders, but policing and professional standards," he said.

(REUTERS)

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