BARCELONA: Press ure mounted on Monday against Catalan vows to break away from Spain after hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied to defend national unity, but the region’s leader maintained his threat to formally declare independence possibly within days.
The protests followed days of soaring tensions after police cracked down on voters during a banned October 1 Catalan independence referendum, prompting separatist leaders to warn they would unilaterally break away from Spain.
Catalan separatists have called on regional president Carles Puigdemont to declare independence in defiance of the central government when he addresses the regional parliament on Tuesday evening.
He hinted in an interview on Sunday that the region would go ahead and declare independence if Madrid continues to refuse dialogue.
“We have left the door open to mediation and we have said yes to so many mediation options that have been proposed,” he told Catalan television channel TV3.
“The days are going by and if the Spanish state does not give a positive response, we will do what we set out to do.”
Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators, calling themselves a “silent majority”, packed central Barcelona on Sunday to protest against the plan, which has sparked the country’s worst political crisis in a generation.
Around 350,000 people attended the rally, municipal police said, while organizers put turnout at between 930,000 and 950,000.
Some protesters called for Puigdemont to go to jail for holding the independence vote.
Others called for dialogue. The slogan for the demonstration—organized by the Societat Civil Catalana, the main anti-independence group in Catalonia—was: “Enough, let’s recover good sense!”
Tentative signs emerged last week that the two sides may be seeking to defuse the crisis after Madrid offered an apology to Catalans injured by police during the vote.
But uncertainty still haunts the country, with the standoff also raising deep concerns in the European Union as it continues to grapple with Britain’s planned exit from the bloc.
On the eve of Sunday’s rally, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to rule out suspending Catalonia’s regional autonomy—a move that risks further unrest.
But Rajoy assured Catalan leaders that there “is still time” to backtrack and avoid the imposition of direct rule from Madrid.
Kofi Annan, in his role as chairman of The Elders, a group of notable public figures formed in 2007 to promote peace, said: “The constitutional crisis that is unfolding in Spain calls for consultation and not confrontation.
“I urge the Spanish government and the regional government of Catalonia to renew their commitment to a resolution through dialogue,” the former UN chief added.
Recent opinion polls indicate that Catalans are split on independence, although regional leaders said police violence during the referendum turned many against Madrid.