Protests paralyse Catalonia as marches head for Barcelona

By Aritz Parra and Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press

Catalonia and its riot-swept regional capital Barcelona have been paralysed by a mix of strikes and marches as it faced its fifth day of protests over the conviction of independence leaders.

Spain’s central authorities said 57 flights into and out of the region had been cancelled due to a general strike called by pro-independence unions.

Picketers also closed off to traffic the border with France across the Pyrenees and burned tyres and blocked dozens of roads across the north-eastern region.

Commuter and long-distance train services were reduced significantly, and many shops and factories did not open for business.

Antoni Gaudi’s modernist Sagrada Familia, a tourist magnet in central Barcelona, closed its doors due to a protest blocking the access to the basilica.

Highways were occupied by thousands of people joining five marches from inland towns that are expected to converge in Barcelona’s city centre on Friday afternoon for a mass protest with striking students and workers.

Demonstrators outside the Sagrada Família (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Farmers in tractors are joining some of the so-called “Freedom marches”, organised by the grassroots pro-independence ANC and Omnium groups.

That follows clashes with police in cities across the region late on Thursday, for the fourth night in a row. In the capital, a mob of far-right anti-independence activists tried to storm a separatist protest of thousands.

Health authorities in the region say 42 people were injured on Thursday night, most of them in the capital, and regional police arrested 16 protesters, sending eight to jail, according to Spain’s Interior Ministry.

Protesters march into Barcelona (Joan Mateu/AP)

The caretaker interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, said authorities are tracking “minority groups that are provoking incidents in very specific places”, vowing to punish the radicals.More than 200 people have been arrested since separatist sentiment swelled again this week following the imprisonment of nine separatist politicians and activists who led a push for independence that triggered Spain’s deepest political crisis in decades.

Their former leader, Carles Puigdemont, on Friday avoided arrest after he voluntarily gave evidence to Belgian judicial authorities over a new warrant Spain issued this week following the sentences.

Spain is seeking Puigdemont on possible charges of sedition and misuse of public funds after previously failing to secure his extradition from Germany and Belgium on suspicion of rebellion.

He fled to Brussels in late 2017 following the failed attempt to establish a new European republic in the wealthy region, and has since campaigned for Catalan independence from there.

Carles Puigdemont (Olivier Matthys/AP)

In May, he was elected as a European legislator, but was not sworn in because Spain’s electoral board said he did not qualify for the seat by failing to show up in Madrid to swear Spain’s constitution.

The Belgian judge did not put bail conditions on him while the case is being examined, making any immediate extradition unlikely.

The Spanish football federation has postponed next week’s marquee game between Barcelona and Real Madrid due to a fear of more street violence in Catalonia.

Barcelona were due to play at the Camp Nou on October 26 (Joan Monfort/AP)

Separatist groups have called for supporters to rally in Barcelona on October 26, the planned date of the match.

The federation, in consultation with government officials, said it is not safe to play on the same day. The clubs have until Monday to decide on another date for the game.