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.

- 'Absurd gamble' -

The protesters adopted a manifesto at the end of the rally stating: "We demand an end to this absurd gamble that we have been dragged into."

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.

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, a Catalan, meanwhile slammed "an unacceptable level of violence" after Saturday's peaceful march later degenerated when some 10,000 joined a separate demonstration by the radical CDR.

Massing outside police headquarters, they shouted "Occupation forces, out!", some hurling bottles, rocks and fireworks at officers.

Although the police initially refused to engage, they eventually charged, using batons and foam rounds to try and break up the crowds, an AFP correspondent said.

The police eventually charged, using batons and foam rounds to disperse the protesters. Several people suffered light injuries on both sides, emergency services and security forces said.

More than 600 people have been injured in the protests, 367 of them civilians and 289 police, official figures show.