BARCELONA • Hundreds of thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets to demand that their region break away from Spain, pressuring pro-independence leaders to unite and iron out differences over their secession plan.
Crowds waved red and yellow striped Catalan flags in Barcelona and four other cities on the region's national day, the "Diada", which marks the conquest of Barcelona by Spain's King Philip V in 1714.
Local police estimated that 800,000 people had taken part on Sunday but Spain's central government, which fiercely opposes Catalan independence, put turnout at around 370,000.
Many wore white T-shirts with the slogan "Ready" in Catalan, highlighting their belief that the northwestern region of 7.5 million people was already prepared to be its own country.
The run-up to the protest coincided with a rift between separatist parties just as they target independence for the region in mid-2017.
In the coming months, "critical decisions" regarding Catalonia's future will have to be taken, the head of the regional government of Catalonia, Mr Carles Puigdemont, told a meeting with foreign journalists before the rallies.
NOW'S THE TIME
Politicians say we are close, but we want to see it happen now.
MR XAVIER VALLVE, a researcher at the Barcelona rally, on moving the campaign along at a faster pace.
Catalonia is the main political challenge that Spain faces.
MR CARLES PUIGDEMONT, head of the regional government of Catalonia.
Catalan separatists have tried in vain for years to win approval from Spain's central government to hold an independence referendum like the one held in 2014 in Scotland, which resulted in a "no" vote.
After winning a clear majority in Catalonia's regional parliament for the first time ever last year, secessionist parties approved a plan to achieve independence in mid-2017. But the plan ran into trouble in June when Mr Puigdemont's coalition government lost the support of the tiny anti-capitalist party CUP which has the hardest line on independence. As a result, it lost its clear majority in the assembly.
The pro-independence camp hopes the mass protest will reunite and breathe new life into their campaign, which is moving along more slowly than many of its supporters would like.
"Politicians say we are close, but we want to see it happen now," said 60-year-old researcher Xavier Vallve at the rally in Barcelona.
Ms Carmen Santos, a 58-year-old civil servant, said she hoped this "Diada would be the last before independence".
Rallies were also held in the southern city of Tarragona, Berga in the centre, Salt in the north and Lleida in the east.
Mr Puigdemont urged Spain's central government to address Catalan concerns. "Catalonia is the main political challenge that Spain faces," he said.