BARCELONA, Spain – Spain’s government said Wednesday it would do whatever it takes to stamp out violence in Catalonia, where clashes between regional independence supporters and police have injured more than 200 people in two days.
“Everything is prepared and (the government) will act, if needed, with firmness, proportionality and unity,” a government statement said.
It said caretaker prime minister Pedro Sanchez was meeting with other national political leaders and “he doesn’t rule out any scenario.”
Many people in Catalonia have long fought for it to break away from Spain and become a new European country. Demonstrations have traditionally been peaceful, but not always.
Violent clashes erupted in Barcelona and other Catalan towns after Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday handed nine separatist Catalan leaders lengthy prison sentences for their part in an October 2017 effort to achieve independence.
Rioting broke out Tuesday evening, when Barcelona police said 40,000 protesters packed the streets near the office of Spain’s government representative.
Protesters turned over metal barriers, set fire to trash cans and threw firecrackers and other objects at police. The outnumbered police used foam bullets, batons and shields to battle the groups amid tense standoffs on Barcelona’s streets.
Pere Ferrer, director of Catalonia’s regional police, said the street violence was “intolerable.”
“The situation is very, very difficult, but the police have the means they need to deal with it,” he told a Barcelona news conference.
An organization representing downtown Barcelona businesses, called Barcelona Abierta, said the violence in the city had caused “significant losses” and “deeply damaged” the image abroad of the popular tourist destination.
The tumult prompted Sanchez, who is preparing for a general election Nov. 10, to consult with his party and other leading figures, some of whom are urging him to take a firmer hand.
Albert Rivera, leader of the Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, traveled to the Catalan capital Barcelona and said the country faced “a state of emergency.”
Popular Party leader Pablo Casado, a conservative, called for a government decree that would allow the central government to take over full control of the Catalan regional police, while the far-right Vox party wanted exceptional measures that would temporarily lift some civil rights.
On Wednesday, thousands of people joined five large protest marches across Catalonia that were set to converge on Barcelona on Friday.
They included families with children, elderly and young people, and banners reading “Libertat Presos Politics” (Freedom for political prisoners) – a reference to the prominent Catalan politicians and activists leaders sentenced by the Supreme Court.
Feliu, a retiree who walked 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the northern town of Berga and asked to be identified only by his first name because of the delicate situation in Catalonia, said he didn’t agree with the violence but saw it as a way of gaining attention.
“If foreigners see us protesting peacefully all the time, they might think that nothing is going on or they might not even notice us,” the 68-year-old said.
The imprisoned separatist leaders have grown into powerful symbols and a rallying point for the separatist movement.
Catalan regional president Quim Torra joined one of the marches, saying he wanted to be next to the people.
“These peaceful marches happening across the country (Catalonia) are the Catalan people’s best response” to the court’s verdict, Torra said.
Torra, one of the separatist movement’s leaders, didn’t criticize the recent street violence.
Spain’s Interior Ministry said 54 members of Catalonia’s regional police force and 18 National Police officers were hurt in the protests Tuesday. Health authorities say they treated 125 people, both police and protesters.
Police made 29 arrests in Barcelona, where more than 150 street barricades were set ablaze by protesters, according to the Interior Ministry.
Similar protests turned violent in other towns in Catalonia, which has seen a rise in separatist sentiment over the past decade. Roughly half of the region’s 7.5 million residents support independence, with the other half opposing a breakaway, according to polls.
Students in the restive region went on strike, with organizers urging them to remain peaceful.
The marches and sporadic street protests continued to snarl traffic across the wealthy region. Flights and passenger movements at Barcelona airport have also been disrupted by protests.
Traffic in downtown Barcelona was also slowed by the massive cleanup effort to remove the debris of burned barricades and trash.
Gabriel Rufian, a leading Catalan separatist and member of Spain’s parliament, and some other high-profile secessionists, called for calm.
“Nothing can justify violence,” Rufian told Cadena SER radio.
Most impromptu protesters have responded to an online campaign by Tsunami Democratic, a shadowy grassroots group that uses encrypted messaging apps to call for peaceful disobedience.
Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said authorities were investigating the group.
But on Wednesday, the group issued a statement appealing for an end to the violence.
The Supreme Court found nine of 12 Catalan politicians and activists guilty of sedition and gave them prison sentences of nine to 13 years. Four of them were additionally convicted of misuse of public funds. The other three were fined for disobeying court orders.
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