Deposed Catalan Leader Calls on Supporters to Peacefully Oppose Takeover by Madrid

Madrid calls on Puigdemont to participate in Catalan elections ■ Demonstrators hold rally in Barcelona in solidarity with Spain's national police

Pro-unity demonstrators wave the Spanish and Catalan flags as they gather in Barcelona, Spain, October 28, 2017.
YVES HERMAN/REUTERS

Catalonia's separatist leader has called on Catalans to peacefully oppose Spain's takeover, in a staged appearance that seemed to convey that he refuses to accept his firing, which was ordered by central authorities.

Carles Puigdemont said in a brief statement that appeared to be pre-recorded that "we will continue working to build a free country." Spain's La Sexta TV channel simultaneously showed live footage of Puigdemont having lunch in a bar in central Girona, his hometown, occasionally interrupted by residents who asked him to pose for selfies.

Puigdemont accused Madrid of "premeditated aggression" against the will of the Catalans.

"It's very clear that the best form of defending the gains made up until now is democratic opposition to Article 155," he said in the statement, referring to the legal trigger for the takeover.

But he was vague on precisely what steps the secessionists would take as the national authorities are already moving into Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia to enforce control.

The bold if to all appearances futile action marked a potentially dangerous escalation of Spain's worst political crisis in the four decades since its return to democracy.

Several hours later, about 150 people on motorbikes and in cars held a rally through the streets of Barcelona, waving Spanish and official Catalan flags.

The demonstrators honked horns to show their solidarity with Spain's national police, and opposition to a declaration of independence by Catalonia.

The demonstrators, noisy but peaceful, headed toward the port, where reinforcements of national police and Spain's Guardia Civil have been staying since they were deployed in the area before a banned October 1 referendum on independence.

Puigdemont's appearance on public regional TV3 broadcaster showed him speaking from a podium with the official emblem of the Catalan regional government. Behind him there were the Catalan and European Union flags, but not the one from Spain.

Spain took formal direct control of Catalonia on Saturday, dismissing the region's defiant separatist government a day after lawmakers passed a declaration of independence for the prosperous northeastern region. Opposition lawmakers who disagreed with secession walked out on the vote.

Also on Saturday, the Spanish government said it would welcome Puigdemont's participation in regional elections, which will be held in December.

Government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told Reuters TV in an interview that if Puigdemont wanted to continue in politics, "which is his right, I think he should prepare for next elections."

"I'm quite sure that if Puigdemont takes part in these elections, he can exercise this democratic opposition," Mendez de Vigo told Reuters TV in an interview.

After dissolving the regional parliament and firing the regional government on Friday, Spain's Prime Minister Rajoy said a new regional election would be held in Catalonia on December 21. 

Mendez de Vigo also said he was confident that the regional Catalan police would obey the law after the government had fired regional officers. 

He said that if Puigdemont refused to abandon his office, the government would react with "intelligence and with common sense."

Asked what would happen if Puigdemont had to face prosecution in the courts, Mendez replied that in Spain judicial and political powers were separate and that "no one is above the law." He did not commit himself further. 

Possible conflict

Catalonia's police force told its officers to stay neutral, a step towards averting possible conflict following doubts over how the Mossos d'Esquadra, as they are called, would respond if ordered to evict Puigdemont and his government. 

The force is riven by distrust between those for and against independence and also estranged from Spain's national police forces, Mossos and national officers have told Reuters. Some Catalan officers stood between national police and those trying to vote during the referendum. 

"Given that there is it is likely to be an increase in gatherings and rallies of citizens... and that there are people of different thoughts, we must remember that it is our responsibility to guarantee the security of all and help these to take place without incident," an internal memo said. 

Government buildings, the headquarters of national political parties, ports, airports, courts, and the Bank of Spain were being guarded, the Interior Ministry said. Units of the regional force could be replaced if events made that necessary, it said.

The Madrid government also sacked the Mossos' chief, Josep Lluis Trapero, who became a hero to the secessionists after his force took a much softer stance than national police in enforcing the referendum ban. 

Spain's High Court barred Trapero from leaving the country and seized his passport as part of an investigation for alleged sedition, although it has not ordered his arrest. 

Madrid says 'Viva España'

In Barcelona, thousands of independence supporters packed the Sant Jaume Square in front of the regional headquarters on Friday night, waving Catalan flags and singing traditional songs in the Catalan language as bands played. But there was no trouble overnight and the streets were quiet on Saturday. 

The main secessionist group, the Catalan National Assembly, has urged civil servants not to follow orders from the Spanish government and to mount "peaceful resistance" while a pro-independence trade union, the CSC, called a strike. 

The government said it would ensure a minimum service. 

About 1,000 people took part in a pro-unity rally in Madrid on Saturday and others turned out in the northern city of Valladolid – an indication of the resentment the independence drive has caused in the rest of Spain. 

Aitor Sanchez, a 30-year-old worker, said he was saddened the government had taken control of Catalonia but it had no choice. "These are delicate moments in our country. But I believe we must respect the law." 

The chaos has prompted an exodus of businesses from Catalonia, which contributes about a fifth of Spain's economy, the fourth-largest in the euro zone. Tourism in hugely popular Barcelona has been hit, and markets have shown signs of concern. 

European leaders have also denounced the push, fearing it could fan separatist sentiment around the continent.