General strike in Catalonia as 'freedom marchers' head to Barcelona

Barcelona (AFP) –


Spain's protest-hit northeast was gripped by a general strike Friday as thousands of "freedom marchers" were due to converge on Barcelona for a mass show of dissent over the jailing of nine Catalan separatist leaders.

As the angry demonstrations entered their fifth day, activists blocked a string of roads in the wealthy northeastern region, cutting off the main cross-border highway with France.

Workers were also downing tools in a mass show of dissent over Monday's Supreme Court verdict in which the separatist leaders were handed long jail terms over a banned referendum and an abortive independence declaration two years ago.

As well as the strike, several thousands of people were due to end a three-day march to Barcelona from five regional towns in another coordinated move aimed at causing chaos on roads and highways in a region that accounts for about a fifth of Spain's economic output.

They were expected to converge on the Catalan capital by 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) for yet another massive demonstration. Although they have been occurring daily, with tens of thousands rallying in the city centre, Friday's was expected to be the largest.

Ahead of the strike and in anticipation of the likely transport problems, Spanish carmaker SEAT -- which is owned by the Volkswagen group -- halted production at its Martorell assembly plant near Barcelona which employs some 6,500 people.

- La Boqueria market shuttered -

In Barcelona, Spain's top tourist destination, most of the stalls were shuttered in the city's famed La Boqueria market, and its renowned Liceu opera house cancelled Friday night's performance.

In the streets, there was far less traffic than normal, and at El Prat airport, 55 flights were cancelled, the AENA airports authority said.

Elsewhere in the region, many roads were blocked off, in some cases by demonstrators, in others by burning tyres or mattresses, and in one area activists had even strewn nails on the roads, causing punctures among passing cars.

With the region mired in chaos, football giants Barcelona and Real Madrid have been told to postpone next weekend's Clasico match, a hugely popular clash which had been due to take place at the city's Camp Nou stadium on October 26.

The Spanish Football Federation said the two clubs would agree on a later date to schedule the match. Both clubs had reportedly refused an offer to hold the match in Madrid.

- Fourth night of unrest -

The latest mobilisation came after a fourth night of unrest, which saw hundreds of young protesters going on the rampage in Barcelona, chanting "independence" as they torched improvised roadblocks and tossed Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with foam rounds, AFP correspondents said.

Earlier on Thursday, around 25,000 students joined a midday rally outside Barcelona city hall, local police said.

"The actions we have been staging over the past few days testify to the helplessness we feel as the Spanish state continues to reject (independence) and threaten us," said David, a 23-year-old accountant who did not give his family name.

Emergency services said 42 people were injured in unrest across the region overnight, most of them in Barcelona.

And police said they had arrested around 110 people since Monday's verdict, at least 11 of them overnight.

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

The Supreme Court's explosive decision has thrust the Catalan dispute to the heart of the political debate as Spain heads towards its fourth election in as many years, which will be held on November 10.