Marches, strikes rattle Catalonia amid separatist anger

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Masses of flag-waving demonstrators demanding Catalonia’s independence and the release from prison of separatist leaders jammed downtown Barcelona on Friday as the northeastern Spanish region endured its fifth straight night of unrest.

Chaotic scenes of violence erupted after more than a half million protesters, including families with children, marched in the Catalan capital, according to local police. Many were clad in pro-independence ‘estelada’ flags and shouted “Independence!” and “Freedom for political prisoners!”

Some of them had walked for three days in five massive “freedom marches” from towns across the northeastern Spanish region. They converged on Barcelona, a city of 1.6 million people, and joined students and workers who also took to the streets during a 24-hour general strike.

But at night, police resorted again to rubber bullets and, for the first time this week, to tear gas and water cannons to repel masked youth hurling cobblestones and flammable bottles, building barricades and setting dozens of bonfires with large garbage bins.

Around 400 people, roughly half of them police officers, have been injured according to regional and central authorities, and 128 arrested since separatist sentiment surged on Monday, when the Supreme Court sentenced to lengthy prison terms nine separatist politicians and activists. The nine had led a 2017 push for independence that triggered Spain’s deepest political crisis in decades.

On Friday, the huge displays of support were mostly peaceful, but protesters and police battled over the control of Barcelona’s centre after protesters circled the gates of the national police’s headquarters. As clashes with police escalated, the chaos spread to other areas of the Catalan capital.

Albert Ramón, a 43-year-old public servant joining one of the rallies in the northern city of Girona, said the convictions — including fines for three more separatists — had soured the political climate.

“These verdicts violate fundamental rights and hence people are reacting,” Ramón said.

The separatist movement is proud of its history of mostly peaceful campaigning. Officials have accused a relatively small number of agitators of provoking the recent riots.

Spanish authorities suspect a secretive new group called Tsunami Democratic is using encrypted messages to orchestrate some of the attacks, which have included torched cars and burning barricades in the streets.