Catalonia pushes ahead with referendum plans

A member of Catalan pro-independence supporter group "Muts i a la Gabia" (Silenced and Caged) holds a ballot box fitted in a cage during a protest against the Spanish Constitutional Court in front of the Basilicia Sagrada Familia in Barcelona on Oct
A member of Catalan pro-independence supporter group "Muts i a la Gabia" (Silenced and Caged) holds a ballot box fitted in a cage during a protest against the Spanish Constitutional Court in front of the Basilicia Sagrada Familia in Barcelona on Oct 2, 2014. The leader of Catalonia has set up a panel to supervise a contested independence referendum next month, defying Spain's central government which has gone to the courts to block the vote. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MADRID (Reuters) - The leader of Catalonia has set up a panel to supervise a contested independence referendum next month, defying Spain's central government which has gone to the courts to block the vote.

The president of the wealthy north-east region, Artur Mas, appointed a seven-strong committee to oversee the ballot on Thursday evening, the local government said in a statement.

It was the first official move to prepare for the planned Nov 9 vote on separation from Spain since the Constitutional Court agreed on Monday to review the legality of the referendum - a decision that effectively suspended the ballot.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's office declined to comment.

Catalonia has a population of 7.5 million people, is centred on Barcelona and has its own language. Accounting for a fifth of Spain's economy, it has long sought independence and was buoyed by the close result of last month's referendum in Scotland.

Madrid, worried that a vote would tear the country apart just as it is slowly emerging from a ferocious economic downturn, argues that any ballot on secession would be against Spain's 1979 constitution.

Catalonia said earlier this week it would temporarily suspend campaigning as it prepared to appeal against the Constitutional Court decision.

Mas is due to meet pro-independence parties in Barcelona on Friday to reach an agreement on a strategy following the court ruling. Political analysts have said Mas was likely to call early regional elections, turning it into a de-facto plebiscite on secession hopes.