BARCELONA • The Spanish police monitored schools earmarked as polling stations and occupied the Catalan government's communications hub yesterday in an effort to prevent a banned independence referendum that has divided Spain.
Hundreds of supporters of the referendum spent the night in schools with their children and said they planned to remain there until today to keep them open for voters.
A Spanish government source said more than half the schools had been closed off and the police would remove people who attempted to vote today. Less than a tenth of schools were occupied by parents, the source said.
Tens of thousands of Catalans are expected to try to vote today in a ballot that will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 Constitution.
Catalonia is a wealthy region within Spain with its own language and culture. Should the vote take place, a "yes" vote is likely, given that most of the 40 per cent of Catalans who polls show support independence are expected to cast ballots, while most of those against it are not.
Parents in some of the occupied schools said police officers had told them they could stay as long as they were not doing anything connected with the referendum.
Madrid has sent thousands more police to the region in the north-east to enforce a court order banning the referendum, many of whom are billeted in two ships in a port.
The Spanish government source said it would be up to the police how they carried out orders to remove people from polling stations.
The head of the Catalan police on Friday urged officers to avoid the use of force. The Catalan government said the police had occupied its communications hub and would remain there for two days after Catalonia's High Court ordered the police to prevent electronic voting and instructed Google to delete an application it said was being used to spread information on the vote.
Despite central government and court efforts to stop the referendum, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said on Friday it would go ahead, with no last-minute compromise.
Organisers urged voters to arrive at 5am at polling stations and to wait in line until the schools were opened.
Voters must show peaceful resistance to police action, organisers said. "We must be sure there are lots of people present of all ages," they said in instructions disseminated on social media.
Any volunteer staffing a voting station with use of a census would be liable for a fine of up to €300,000 (S$481,000), the government source said.
In a sign of how the breakaway attempt is fiercely opposed elsewhere in Spain, rallies took place outside town halls in major cities, including Cordoba, Malaga and Zaragoza. A pro-unity crowd also gathered in Barcelona.