Spain seals off majority of Catalan polling stations but Catalan leader 'won't give up'
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Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said Saturday he and his supporters would not "give up" their rights, speaking on the eve of an independence vote that Madrid has banned and is trying hard to block.
By Saturday, the interior ministry said it had sealed most of the 2,315 polling stations in the wealthy northeastern Spanish region in an effort to prevent Sunday's referendum.
However, teachers, parents, students and activists have leapt into action, defying warnings of repercussions by occupying at least 160 schools designated as polling stations.
In an interview with AFP, Puigdemont insisted that his government had "everything in place so that everything takes place normally", vowing that supporters of the referendum would not "go home" or give up on their rights.
But he also called on mediation over the crisis that pits his separatist executive against Madrid in what has become one of the biggest crises to hit Spain in decades.
"If the yes wins, if the no wins -- in any scenario there must be mediation, because things aren't working" he told AFP.
Puigdemont did not call on any specific person, organisation or country to mediate Catalonia's dispute over its place within Spain, but he hinted the EU may be well placed to do so.
"I think that from now it would be logical for the EU to actively monitor (the situation) and actively take an interest," he said. "If it doesn't take an interest in what is happening in Catalonia when everyone is watching and taking an interest, there's something wrong."
The crisis has sown divisions among Catalans, with the region deeply split on independence, even if a large majority want to be allowed to settle the matter in a legal vote.
In Spain's major cities, Madrid, Sevilla, Santander, Alicante, Valencia and Malaga, thousands protested for Spanish unity, and thousands also rallied in Barcelona, the Catalan capital.
"We shouldn't have got to this point. We've arrived at a point of no return," said Fernando Cepeda, a 58-year-old engineer, a Spanish flag tied around his waist in front of Madrid's city hall.
Authorities have been racing against the clock to prevent the vote ruled unconstitutional by Spain's courts.
For days, they have been seizing electoral items such as ballot papers while prosecutors have ordered the closure of websites linked to the vote and the detention of key members of the team organising the referendum.
Enric Millo, the central government representative in Catalonia, said earlier Saturday that 163 of the polling stations were already occupied when they were sealed off. As a result, those inside were allowed to leave but no one could enter.
AFP reporters, however, visited several occupied schools where people were free to go in and out freely, indicating there may be more occupied buildings that have yet to be sealed off.
A regional government source said there were "around 200 occupied centres" in the municipality of Barcelona alone.
Millo said police had also gone to the Catalan government's communications hub in Barcelona on Saturday, cutting its connections with polling stations as well as a software that could have allowed "an online vote."
The Catalan police force has been instructed to empty the buildings by early Sunday, a government source said on Saturday without giving details on how this would be carried out. The police have been directed to refrain from using violence to remove parents and students.
How the 17,000 regional officers respond to their mandate and whether they can clear all the polling places could be key to the success or failure of the referendum.
Spain's foreign minister said Saturday the Catalan government's plan is anti-democratic and runs "counter to the goals and ideals" of the European Union.
"What they are pushing is not democracy. It is a mockery of democracy, a travesty of democracy," Minister Alfonso Dastis told The Associated Press.
The Mossos d'Esquadra Catalan police have warned about the risk of "disruption of public order" if efforts are made to prevent people from casting ballots.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP and AFP)