Catalan students rally en masse to kick off protest strike

Barcelona (AFP) –


Catalan separatists were back out on the streets again Thursday, with students rallying as they kicked-off a two-day strike and thousands more pressing on with a long cross-country march towards Barcelona.

Around 25,000 striking students and their supporters took part in a midday rally outside of Barcelona city hall, according to municipal police.

Some insulted police officers and others threw eggs and toilet paper at them.

Eduard Salinero, a 21-year-old physics student who is in favour of separatism, said many people who want Catalonia to remain a part of Spain back the protests "because they feel it is totally unfair to send our elected politicians to jail."

Activists blocked several roads across Catalonia by burning tyres while the commuter rail service in Barcelona was intermittently disrupted due to demonstrators on the tracks, officials said.

Several roads and highways were also blocked off due to the mass marches which departed on Wednesday from five Catalan towns heading for Barcelona.

Their aim is to converge on the Catalan capital on Friday when separatists have called a general strike and a big demonstration to protest the Supreme Court's decision to jail nine separatist leaders for their role in a referendum banned by Madrid and a short-lived declaration of independence.

Xenia Cabeza, 18, said she was protesting "because they don't let us vote in a referendum" on secession. She carried a sign that read "You can't imprison an entire people".

Another protest has been called for Thursday evening by the radical CDR group.

Announced on Monday morning, the verdict has sparked three days of large-scale demonstrations which have turned increasingly violent with separatist activists engaged in nighttime clashes with riot police in Barcelona and elsewhere.

- 'No impunity' -

Overnight, protesters in Barcelona set fire to cars and large wheelie bins, overturned metal barriers and threw firecrackers at police, who pushed back with batons and shields. Emergency services said 58 people were injured, including a 17-year-old who was hit by a police van.

Another 38 people were injured in protests in other Catalan cities, including Lerida and Girona.

Police have arrested 97 people across Catalonia since the protests began, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said Thursday.

"We are experiencing episodes of great violence in Catalonia carried out by minority groups which are perfectly organised," he said.

With further protests planned for Thursday night, the minister vowed there would be "no impunity" for those involved in violence.

Berta Barbet, a political scientist at the University of Barcelona, said the demonstrations "in their current size" would likely only last a week.

"We are talking about actions that take a lot of time and energy and I don't see a big part of the population keeping it up for long," she told AFP.

- 'Push forward' -

While Catalan president Quim Torra has sanctioned and even encouraged civil disobedience, his government is also responsible for the regional police who are charged with controlling demonstrations, putting him in an uncomfortable position.

Torra had not commented on the unrest for days, but overnight he called for an immediate halt to the violent clashes, saying there was "no reason or justification for burning cars".

But just hours later he pledged in Catalonia's regional parliament to push for a new vote on secession by the end of his term in early 2022.

"We must push forward and not allow ourselves to be intimidated by threats and bans," he said.

A poll published in July by a public Catalan institute showed support for an independent Catalonia at its lowest level in two years, with 48.3 percent of people against and 44 percent in favour.

The court's decision has thrust the Catalan dispute to the heart of the political debate ahead of Spain's November 10 general election, its fourth in as many years.

According to the first poll since Monday's verdict, the ruling Socialists are likely to secure the most votes but will again fall short of a majority.

Published in El Mundo daily, it predicted Sanchez's Socialists will capture 122 seats in the 350-seat parliament, slightly down from 123 it took in the last election in April, while the PP would win 98 seats, up from 66.