MADRID • Thousands of demonstrators rallied across Madrid yesterday calling for Spanish unity and demanding action to resolve a political crisis over plans by separatists in Catalonia to declare independence.
Madrid's central Colon Square was transformed into a sea of Spanish flags as several thousand people joined a "patriotic" march organised by activists to defend Spain's unity.
Hundreds of others, all dressed in white, gathered outside Madrid city hall in a separate rally calling for dialogue to end the crisis.
The rallies followed days of soaring tensions after police cracked down on voters during a banned Catalan independence referendum last Sunday, prompting regional leaders to warn they would unilaterally declare independence in days.
"(Prime Minister Mariano) Rajoy, you wuss, defend the nation!" chanted a group of young, mostly male demonstrators as they marched into Colon Square waving Spanish flags.
"It's reached a turning point and we need to get actively involved in the defence of Spain's values as a nation," said Mr Joaquin Penas, 52, an off-duty cavalry colonel with a Spanish flag draped round his shoulders.
If Catalonia were to declare independence, "it would be like cutting off an arm", he said, adding that there was "a lot of concern" about the government's perceived lack of action to resolve the crisis.
"I don't have much confidence in the government. It is not a very proactive government... Rajoy is anything but a leader. To be honest, he's awful," Mr Penas added.
Tentative signs have emerged that the two sides may be seeking to defuse the country's worst crisis in a generation after Madrid offered a first apology last Friday to Catalans injured by police during the vote.
But uncertainty still haunts the country as Catalan leaders have not backed off from plans to declare the region independent.
In Cibeles Square, hundreds of people clapped and waved their hands in the air in a crowd which included many families with young children and babies, but no flags.
Ms Yurena Diaz, a 36-year-old doctor with her dog Quillo on a lead, said she was demonstrating "so that there would be dialogue before we lose ourselves, so they will try and sit down and talk".
She added: "There is a lot more tension and violence. Each time it gets worse. Such violence makes you afraid. It has generated a lot of fear and that's dangerous."
Mr Rajoy, however, has vowed to block any independence move and has also rejected calls for mediation in a dispute that has drawn cries of concern all over Spain, and even from Barcelona and Real Madrid footballers.
The crisis has raised fears of unrest in the north-eastern region, a tourist-friendly area of 7.5 million people that accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy.
Businesses and the government have kept up economic pressure on Catalonia, however, with several big companies announcing moves to move their headquarters to other parts of Spain.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont had been due to appear at the regional Parliament tomorrow but postponed it by a day, a spokesman said. It remains unclear what he plans to say, although some leaders hope he will use the opportunity to make a declaration of independence.