Virus wrecks Catalonia's big national day party

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Barcelona (AFP)

Separatists were Friday staging a muted celebration of Catalan national day with their traditonal mass rallies backing independence from Spain banned over a sharp hike in virus cases.

The annual "Diada" on September 11 marks the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714 and normally draws vast crowds of more than a million people.

But this year's anniversary comes as Spain struggles to contain a huge surge in virus cases, on Monday becoming the first European Union nation to record more than half a million infections -- and the wealthy northeastern region is particularly hard hit.

With large gatherings banned, organisers have opted for a decentralised format and various small events across the region to avoid overcrowding.

The day began with multiple acts of sabotage. Several trains were briefly halted by burning tyres left on the rails, including on the high-speed line to France, Spanish train operator Renfe said.

With regional officials banning private gatherings of more than 10 people, epidemiologists and political leaders, among them separatists, had called for the events to be banned -- but their calls fell on deaf ears.

"It cannot be that the right to demonstrate is the only right we have to give up in order to live with the virus," said Elisenda Paluzie, head of Catalonia's biggest grassroots separatist group, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC).

Turnout was also expected to be impacted by ongoing political divisions within the separatist movement, which have sharpened since the failed independence bid of 2017, which triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

This year's Diada is the first since Spain handed nine separatist leaders long jail terms for their role in the crisis, prompting weeks of mass protests which at times turned violent.