Carles Puigdemont. Picture: REUTERS
Carles Puigdemont. Picture: REUTERS

Barcelona — Metro stations were closed in Barcelona, pickets blocked roads and state workers walked out on Tuesday in protests across Catalonia over a Spanish police crackdown on a banned independence referendum.

The stoppages, in response to a call for a general strike by unions and pro-independence groups, affected the public sector, public transport and basic services.

The atmosphere in Catalonia has been feverish since the Spanish government sent in police on Sunday to stop an independence referendum, injuring hundreds of people as they tried to vote. Results showed voters overwhelmingly backed independence in the ballot, which opponents of secession mostly boycotted.

The referendum has plunged Spain into its worst constitutional crisis in decades.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said the vote was valid, raising the prospect that the Catalan parliament could unilaterally declare independence from Spain within days. He also called for international mediation in the region’s dispute with Madrid.

Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region, wedged in the northeast on the Mediterranean coast, has its own language and culture. A growing minority has nurtured hopes of independence for years. Madrid says the constitution prohibits secession and can only be changed if all Spaniards, not just Catalans, agree.

Catalonia is a centre of industry and tourism accounting for a fifth of Spain’s economy. Although it has extensive autonomy, its tax revenue is crucial to Spain’s state budget.

Spanish stocks remained under pressure and the cost of insuring exposure to Spanish sovereign debt rose to a near five-month high, with many economists and investors anticipating an escalation of tension in the short term.

Thousands of people took part in marches and protests in Barcelona, the regional capital, on Tuesday. A big crowd gathered outside the local headquarters of Spain’s ruling Popular Party. Catalan firefighters in their orange jackets and yellow helmets, who have assumed a role as mediators between demonstrators and police, stood between the crowd and police.

"In no way can we accept that they come here with this kind of repression," taxi driver Alejandro Torralbo said of Sunday’s police action.

"They can’t do this. What happened on October 1 has fired up independence feeling that will never die," said another demonstrator, 18-year-old student Monica Ventinc.

Services cut back

Normally busy metro stations in Barcelona were deserted as services were cut back sharply, pickets blocked traffic on Gran Via street and traffic on six major highways in the region was disrupted by protests. Protesters used a truck to block a highway in El Masnou near Barcelona, painted "general strike" on a road sign and put up a banner reading "Not one step back".

"Today is a day of democratic, civic and dignified protest. Don’t let yourselves be carried away by provocations.

"The world has seen that we are peaceful people," Puigdemont said on Twitter.

Elsewhere in Barcelona, the strike response was patchy with some shops, supermarkets and cafes open. The Boqueria market was almost empty.

With 95% of the vote counted, authorities said the "yes" vote stood at 90.1%, on a turnout of 2.26-million of 5.34-million voters.

Reuters

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