Activists gear up for weekend of mass protest in Barcelona

Barcelona (AFP) –


Barcelona was bracing Saturday for a weekend of fresh protest, with large rallies by independence supporters and a counter-demonstration by Catalan "remainers" as the backlash over Spain's jailing of separatist leaders rumbled on.

Catalonia has been gripped by unrest since the controversial Supreme Court verdict on October 14 which unleashed a week of huge demonstrations that quickly turned violent, with angry protesters clashing with riot police.

The violence eased off last week although the protests continued, with thousands of students marching peacefully through the city on Friday, waving flags and chanting "The streets will always be ours".

But activists were gearing up for a mass rally on Saturday called by the ANC and Omnium Cultural, the region's two biggest grassroots pro-independence groups that have organised some of the largest separatist protests in recent years.

Then on Sunday, a counter-demonstration has been planned by activists from Catalan Civil Society (SCC), a group representing those who want the region to remain part of Spain, which organised several large protests around the time of the failed independence bid of 2017.

Catalans remain sharply divided over the question of separating from Spain, with a September poll showing 44 percent in favour but 48.3 percent against, and the violent protests over the verdict have only deepened that division.

Following the sentence, the protests turned violent, with demonstrators torching barricades, hurling Molotov cocktails, rocks and even acid at the police who responded with teargas, foam rounds and rubber bullets.

More than 600 people were injured, among them 367 civilians, four of whom lost an eye, Catalan regional health officials said, with another 289 police hurt, the Spanish government said on Friday.

- 'Criminal separatism' -

"This Saturday the word 'freedom' will ring throughout the streets of Barcelona," wrote Omnium on its Twitter account ahead of the demonstration which was to begin near Barcelona port at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT).

Activists from the radical CDR have also called their own protest at 7:30 pm during the evening, raising fears there could be fresh clashes with police.

Earlier on Saturday, thousands of protesters rallied in Madrid in defence of the unity of Spain at a demonstration called by the far-right Vox party, which has taken a very tough line on Catalan separatism and wants all regional pro-independence parties banned.

Party leader Santiago Abascal said only Vox could handle the "criminal separatism" in Catalonia.

Although the faction only entered parliament in April, polls indicate it might become the third largest party following the November 10 election.

The big demonstration on Sunday will bring other Catalans onto the streets who do not want to separate from Spain, but who want to send a message saying "enough violence and confrontation," SCC head Fernando Sanchez Costa told AFP.

"That is an important message for Catalonia, for Spain and the world, where often separatism is associated with Catalonia," he said, recalling that most Catalans did not agree with the separatist agenda.

"From now on we must listen to the social majority in Catalonia that opposes independence and whose emotions are also running high."

- Separation 'not an option' -

The march, which is taking place almost two weeks before the general election, is expected to draw several senior political figures, including Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell who himself is Catalan; the leader of the conservative People's Party Pablo Casado; and head of the centre-right Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera.

Until now, the Socialist government of Pedro Sanchez has turned a deaf ear to repeated calls for dialogue from regional president Quim Torra, who wants to secure Madrid's agreement for a referendum on independence.

"What we will not talk about is the right to self-determination," Carmen Calvo, Sanchez's deputy, told journalists on Saturday.

"If, as president Torra has said every day, the aim is to break up Spain's territorial unity and separate Catalonia from Spain, we simply cannot talk," she said.

"Unilaterally breaking the rules of the game is not an option."