Separatist leaders in Catalonia on Tuesday pledged to keep up their struggle for independence on the second anniversary of an ill-fated independence referendum, prompting Spain’s acting prime minister to warn them “not to play with fire”.
The banned referendum and the short-lived declaration of independence that followed plunged Spain into its biggest political crisis in decades. Madrid responded by imposing direct rule on the region for months, sidelining regional authorities.
“The road towards the Catalan republic is inevitable,” Pere Aragones, Catalonia’s deputy head of government, said in a ceremony in Barcelona. “We want to build it peacefully and for everybody.”
Yellow balloons marked voting stations used in the referendum, held on Oct 1, 2017 despite being deemed illegal by Madrid. “Let’s finish what we started,” read one attached note.
In Girona, about 150 pro-independence protestors marched in streets, some hurling eggs at police and toppling garbage bins.
State news agency Efe said the central government had sent extra riot police to Catalonia amid fears in Madrid of a repeat of last year, when protestors blocked highways and train tracks and about 180,000 people marched in Barcelona.
The separatist movement’s momentum has seemingly slowed in recent months as it finds itself divided over whether to take a hard line that could lead to another banned independence referendum, or more dialogue with Madrid.
But tensions have flared in recent days ahead of the verdict, expected in the next two weeks, of 12 separatist leaders on trial for their role in the 2017 independence bid.
Spain’s high court last week also jailed seven Catalan separatists with possessing explosives, with prosecutors saying they were planning violent action around the time of the verdict. The regional parliament responded to the arrests by adopting a resolution backing civil disobedience.
Acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez said on Tuesday Madrid was ready to again apply direct rule in Catalonia if the regional government broke any laws.
He pointed to the refusal of separatist leaders to condemn the seven activists arrested last week. The leaders said Madrid was trying to paint separatists as a violent movement, a label they reject.
“We urge the Catalan independence movement not to play with fire, not to make the worst possible mistake, which is to look the other way if there are signs of violence, as we have unfortunately seen in recent weeks,” Sanchez said in an interview with broadcaster Cadena Ser.
WORRIED ABOUT COMING DAYS
Laura Borras, lawmaker for secessionist Junts per Catalunya, said in comments to Reuters that it was the Spanish government who had “set fire to Catalan society” with its actions.
The separatist movement has so far been peaceful but the seven activists arrested last week were to be linked to the grassroots CDR, on of the organisers of the Girona protest.
“We were born to defend a referendum. We grew to defend a republic. We will be who will make the enemy tremble. And we will win. Have no doubts,” the CDRs said on Twitter.
Mass protests were scheduled to take place in Barcelona and elsewhere later on Tuesday. Opposition politicians voiced concerns about the potential impact.
“I’m very worried about the coming days,” Cayetana Alvarez de Toledo of the conservative People’s Party told radio station Onda Cero.
An annual pro-independence rally in Barcelona gathered fewer people that usual last month, with organisers citing divisions among separatist parties and the lack of a clear plan for independence as the reason..