BARCELONA • Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets and forced their way into activist-held polling stations in Catalonia yesterday, as thousands flooded the streets to vote in an independence referendum banned by Madrid.
Over 460 people were injured in clashes, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau said, as police cracked down on what the Spanish central government has branded a "farce".
"Spanish democracy faces its greatest challenge," headlined the top-selling El Pais daily, just hours before police moved in en masse to seal off polling stations and seize ballot boxes, sparking scuffles as they sought to block the vote.
More than 5.3 million people have been called upon to have their say on independence from Spain in the wealthy north-eastern region, which has its own distinct language and culture.
The referendum poses the question: "Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?"
But it has been ruled unconstitutional by the central government and the courts, with judicial officials ordering police to seize ballot papers, detain key organisers and shut down websites promoting the vote.
Thousands of Spanish police officers fanned out across the region yesterday, forcing their way into polling stations.
Police officers in riot gear arrived at a site in downtown Barcelona and ordered activists to leave.
Surrounded by an angry crowd, the officers blocked access to the public school building and pushed people away from the doors while Catalan police watched from the sidelines. The police then broke into the building and removed the ballot boxes.
One woman had blood running down her face as she emerged from the melee, while Catalan television showed images of riot police pushing protesters down stairs and wrestling with ballot organisers and demonstrators.
The crackdown drew a sharp rebuke from Catalan leaders.
"The unjustified use of violence, which is both irrational and irresponsible, by the Spanish state will not stop the will of the Catalan people," Catalan president Carles Puigdemont said.
Riot police also stormed a polling station near Girona, smashing the doors of a sports centre where Mr Puigdemont was due to vote, then cutting a chain to force their way in.
But the regional government said Mr Puigdemont managed to vote anyway, tweeting pictures of him casting his ballot in Cornella del Terri, 10km away.
In several areas, voting was reported to be peaceful.
Outside a school in Barcelona, a mixed crowd gathered, among them elderly people in wheelchairs, families and parents with toddlers. With no police in sight, they were able to cast their ballots, prompting scenes of jubilation.
"I've voted! I've voted," one man shouted.
"That's the great hope, to be able to vote freely like this despite the problems we have faced, I'm very happy. I can die peacefully," Mr Jose Mas Ribas, 79, added.
Although Catalonia already has significant control over education, healthcare and welfare, the region says it pays more in taxes than it receives from Madrid.
The referendum law foresees a declaration of independence within 48 hours of a "yes" vote. But it remains unclear what the regional government will actually do, although whatever happens, the outcome will not be recognised by Madrid.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG