Thousands protest in Barcelona over arrest of Catalan officials by Spain ahead of independence referendum

Protesters in Barcelona take to the streets after Spanish police raided Catalan government offices and arrested officials to halt a banned referendum on independence.
A man holds a placard reading "We vote to be free" during a protest near the Economy headquarters of Catalonia's regional government in Barcelona on Sept 20, 2017.
A man holds a placard reading "We vote to be free" during a protest near the Economy headquarters of Catalonia's regional government in Barcelona on Sept 20, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BARCELONA (AFP) - Thousands took to the streets of Barcelona on Wednesday (Sept 20) as Spanish police detained 13 Catalan government officials in a crackdown ahead of an independence referendum which Madrid says is illegal.

With tensions mounting, separatist organisations called for more people to protest as leaders in the northeastern region pressed ahead with preparations for the Oct 1 vote despite Madrid's ban and a court ruling deeming it unconstitutional.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for calm, urging "a return to normality and a return to common sense because the referendum cannot take place".

But Catalan President Carles Puigdemont accused Madrid of imposing a "de facto" state of emergency to try and stop the referendum.

Among those arrested by the Guardia Civil police was Mr Josep Maria Jove, secretary general of economic affairs and Catalonia's deputy vice president, a regional government spokesman said.

The others work in various Catalan government departments, including its economic and budget affairs departments, a local Guardia Civil spokesman said.

The reason for the arrests was not immediately clear, but Spain's central government has warned that officials who help stage the referendum could face criminal charges.

Police said they staged 22 search operations.

In central Barcelona, thousands of protesters gathered near Mr Jove's office, many draped in red and yellow Catalan flags, chanting "Independence!" and "We will vote!"

Ms Anna Sola, an unemployed 45-year-old, said she rushed out to protest after hearing about Mr Jove's arrest on the news and through text messages from friends.

"They are attacking our institutions, those that we voted for, just for simply doing what the people want," she said.

"It is shameful what is happening in Catalonia, there are no words for it."

An influential pro-independence citizens' organisation, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), urged Catalans to hit the streets in protest.

"Let's go out to defend our institutions in a non-violent way. They made a big mistake, we wanted to vote and they declared war," its president Jordi Sanchez said in a statement.

The police operation comes a day after officers seized a trove of documents related to the independence referendum from the offices of Unipost, a private delivery company, in Terrassa near Barcelona.

Police said they confiscated over 45,000 notifications which were about to be sent to Catalans selected to staff polling stations for the vote, representing 80 per cent of the numbers necessary to ensure the stations were adequately staffed.

Police scuffled with dozens of pro-secession protesters who gathered outside Unipost's office to keep officers from entering the building.

Madrid has also threatened to arrest mayors who facilitate the vote, has seized posters and fliers that promote the plebiscite and has tightened its control over the region's finances.

It says the Constitution stipulates that a Spanish region does not have the right to call a referendum.

Tensions have also reached the Parliament in Madrid, where Mr Gabriel Rufian, a lawmaker for the pro-separatist Catalan Republican Left (ERC), on Wednesday told Mr Rajoy to take his "dirty hands off Catalan institutions".

"The will of the Catalan people cannot be stopped. And now we will leave to support our friends," he added before storming out of the assembly with fellow ERC lawmakers.

But Mr Rajoy defended his government's position, saying it was "fulfilling its obligation".

Pro-separatist parties captured 47.6 per cent of the vote in a September 2015 Catalan election which was billed as a proxy vote on independence, giving them a narrow majority of 72 seats in the 135-seat Catalan Parliament.

But opinion polls show Catalonia's roughly 7.5 million residents are deeply divided on independence.

A survey commissioned by the regional government in July showed that 49.4 per cent of Catalans were against independence while 41.1 per cent were in favour.

But more than 70 per cent of Catalans said they wanted a referendum on independence to settle the issue.