Travel chaos as Catalan strike demands leaders' release

Barcelona (AFP) –


Protesters blocked roads and train lines across Catalonia on Wednesday during a strike called by a pro-independence group after several separatist leaders were detained in Madrid over their divisive secession drive.

More than 50 routes including major motorways were cut, causing widespread disruption in the region, which has been plunged into uncertainty over its now-deposed government's bid to split from Spain.

The crisis has shaken a European Union still getting to grips with Britain's shock decision to leave and raised fears of social unrest and prolonged disruption to the eurozone's fourth economy.

- 'Invasion of people' -

Huge banners were draped across at least one tunnel in Barcelona, blocking entry and activists also cut off main roads linking the region of 7.5 million people to France and to the Spanish capital.

"Warning. Big problems at the heart of the commuter train system due to an invasion of people and objects on the tracks," Rodalies de Catalunya, which manages commuter trains in the region, said on Twitter.

Lawmakers in Catalonia -- a region with its own language and distinct culture accounting for a fifth of Spain's GDP -- declared unilateral independence from Spain on October 27 following a banned referendum on the issue.

Regional authorities say 90 percent opted to break from Spain in the unregulated referendum, although less than half of eligible voters turned out in a region deeply divided on independence.

Madrid responded by revoking Catalan autonomy, dismissing its government and parliament, and organising new regional elections next month as it tries to stem the fallout from Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

A judge in Madrid last week ordered eight separatist politicians to be remanded in custody for their role in the independence movement.

Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who is in Belgium facing extradition to Spain, on Tuesday criticised the EU for backing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in his bid to quash Catalonia's secession.

"Will you accept the result of the Catalan referendum or will you continue to help Mr Rajoy in his coup d'etat?" Puigdemont said in Brussels.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Wednesday denied his government was "in crisis" over Puigdemont's presence, which risks reigniting communal tensions in Belgium.

"There is a political crisis in Spain and not in Belgium," Michel told parliament, after Flemish separatist members of his coalition government spoke out in support of Puigdemont.

- 'New phase' -

More than 2,000 businesses have moved their headquarters out of the region as the turmoil drags on.

Wednesday's walkout was called by the pro-independence CSC union but lacked support from Spain's two largest unions.

Waving pro-independence banners and Catalan flags, demonstrators called for the release of sacked government figures and separatist lobbyists.

Local police, who now take their orders directly from Madrid after Spain suspended Catalan autonomy, removed some protesters sat in rows across roads and blocking a main Barcelona bus station.

Authorities said high-speed train links with France were disrupted, with a Barcelona-Lyon train forced to turn back.

Former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras, who is in jail pending investigation on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds, called for calm.

"Catalans are peaceful people. Our cause is reason without violence. Let's always keep it that way. Today too," he said on Twitter.

Not everyone welcomed the disruption.

Reacting to the closure of the main AP-7 motorway linking Catalonia with France, one Twitter user said "30 idiots are imposing their craziness on all the others, this is VIOLENCE, it's an IMPOSITION, it's ILLEGAL, and the passivity of the (police) is OUTRAGEOUS."

New elections will be held in Catalonia on December 21 and Rajoy called on Wednesday for "massive participation" in the vote.

He told lawmakers in Madrid the polls would "open up a new phase... in which the rules of the game are respected, and that helps maintain Spain's economic recovery."

Puigdemont has called for a united separatist front to participate, but a former government ally, the left-wing ERC party, on Tuesday ruled out running on a single ticket.