Spanish government dismisses call for Catalan talks

Spain’s government dismissed calls on Saturday from Catalonia’s pro-independence regional chief for talks over a wave of violence sparked by the jailing of separatist leaders, as police braced for fresh protests. Barcelona saw its worst night of disturbances in decades on Friday as masked youths blocked roads with blazing garbage bins and hurled rocks at security forces, who responded by firing repeated rounds of smoke grenades and tear gas.

Catalonia’s president, Quim Torra, said the violence did not reflect the peaceful nature of the traditional Catalan independence movement and asked for discussions with Madrid.

“We urge the acting prime minister of the Spanish government to sit at a negotiating table to talk,” he told reporters.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Torra must first unequivocally condemn the unrest.

“Mr Torra must strongly condemn the violence, which he has not done so far,” Sanchez said in a statement, adding he also needed to build bridges with the many Catalans who do not want secession. “The government of Spain reiterates that the problem of Catalonia is not independence, which will not occur because it is not legal and nor do the majority of Catalans want it, but rather coexistence,” he said.

Protests erupted this week after Spain’s Supreme Court handed down lengthy prison terms to nine Catalan leaders for their role in a failed independence bid in 2017, which included holding a referendum that courts had deemed illegal.

Over half a million demonstrators waving pro-independence flags poured into Barcelona on Friday, the fifth day of sometimes violent protests over the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders. While the vast majority of the rallies were peaceful, a few hundred masked youths clashed with Spanish police in the heart of the city late in the afternoon, blocking a broad boulevard with burning garbage bins and hurling rocks at the security forces.

Bystanders fled to the safety of shop doorways as police vans tried and failed to clear the road and police in full riot gear fired smoke grenades towards the rioters. Spain's acting interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, told reporters there were clashes taking place around Barcelona's police headquarters late Friday involving around 400 people in "organised groups" who faced "up to six years in prison under Spain's penal code".

Roads leading into the city were packed as marchers from across the region joined a mass rally against this week’s verdict by Spain’s Supreme Court, which sentenced nine separatists to jail over a failed, 2017 secessionist bid. The ruling set off the worst sustained street violence Spain has seen in decades, with anger running high in Catalonia.

Unions in the wealthy region called for a general strike on Friday and students boycotted classes for a third day running. Police estimated some 525,000 people joined the marches. The interior ministry dispatched police reinforcements to the Mediterranean city, which is a major tourist magnet, and warned that troublemakers would be swiftly dealt with.

Radical youth group Arran called for a new demonstration at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) against “police violence” and to demand the “freedom of all political prisoners”.

Police said they feared renewed confrontations and advised shopkeepers in the city center to close during the protest.

Independence is a highly divisive issue in Catalonia, which is Spain’s wealthiest region and has some 7.5 million inhabitants and its own language, parliament and flag. An opinion poll in July showed backing for secession at its lowest level in two years, with 48.3% of people against and 44% in favor.

Spain’s main parties have consistently refused to hold an independence referendum in the region, although Sanchez’s Socialists have said they are open to dialogue on other issues.

Torra said earlier this week said Catalonia should hold a new vote on self-determination within two years. On Saturday, he said the will of the people would be respected: “We will go as far as the people of Catalonia want to go”.

Some 300 people have been arrested in clashes that have flared throughout the region since Monday’s court verdict.

Spain’s acting interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, defended police from accusations they had been heavy-handed.

“The situation is under control. There is serious, organized violence ... but I reiterate that we are not being overwhelmed,” he said after visiting injured police in hospital.

Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau, who does not support the secessionist movement, said her city “does not deserve what we are living through”. Pavements had been torn up and hundreds of plastic garbage bins torched in the unrest, she said.

Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city and draws millions of tourists each year. Three city roads remained closed on Saturday because of the damage, with some foreign visitors caught unawares by the chaos and shocked by what they saw.

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