Thousands rally in Catalan counter-protest

Barcelona (AFP) –


Tens of thousands of people marched Sunday for Spanish unity, staging a counter-rally in Barcelona a day after 350,000 Catalan separatists held a protest over the jailing of nine regional leaders.

Around 80,000 people, according to a police estimate, marched down Barcelona's central Gracia thoroughfare waving Spanish and Catalan flags and chanting "that's enough" and "the streets belong to everyone" to counter the separatist claim that "the streets will always be ours."

Catalonia, a wealthy northeastern region that is home to some 7.5 million people, has been bitterly divided as its calls for independence from the central government in Madrid have grown over the past few years.

Unrest has gripped the region since an October 14 Spanish Supreme Court verdict handed lengthy jail terms to regional leaders behind a banned 2017 referendum and a short-lived declaration of independence.

The ruling prompted waves of protest as Spain wrestles with its worst political crisis in decades.

Neither camp can point to majority support. An opinion poll published in July by the Catalan regional government showed 44 percent support for independence with 48.3 percent opposed.

Xavier Dalamantes, a 40-year-old working in the pharmaceutical industry who attended Sunday's rally with a Spanish flag draped over his shoulders, told AFP that the time had come "to get out there and say what one thinks -- they (the separatists) are trying to turn Catalonia into a totalitarian state."

Sunday's rally was called by the Catalan Civil Society (SCC) association, which said it wanted to show that those opposing secession from the rest of Spain comprise a "silent majority".

"That is an important message for Catalonia, Spain and the world," said SCC chairman Fernando Sanchez Costa.

With Spain just two weeks away from a fourth general election in as many years, members of the Socialist government and leaders of the country's conservative parties joined Sunday's rally.

Some hurled projectiles at riot police who eventually charged, using batons and foam rounds to disperse them.

They were met with bottles, rocks and fireworks, an AFP correspondent said before clearing the area around 11:00 pm.