Protest In Streets As Spanish PM Moves To Dismiss Catalan Leaders

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Above Photo: Protesters wave pro-independence Catalan Estelada flags during a huge demonstration in Barcelona AFP/Getty Images

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Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Barcelona as the Spanish Prime Minister moved to sack Catalan leaders following weeks of heightened tensions in the region.

Using previously untapped constitutional powers, PM Mariano Rajoy wants the Spanish government to install its own people in their place and call a new local election.

It follows the independence referendum that went ahead despite being banned by Spain’s Constitutional Court.

Mr Rajoy took the unprecedented move after an extraordinary cabinet meeting on Saturday, saying the central government needs to “restore order” in the face of a secession effort backed by the regional government.

He is proposing that the powers of Catalan officials be taken over by central government ministers.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont swiftly dismissed this, describing it as the worst attack on Catalonia’s institutions since the Franco dictatorship.

Spanish PM moves to dissolve Catalan government

Mr Rajoy’s aggressive stance has been met with a huge backlash, as protesters poured onto the streets wrapped in red-and-yellow Catalan flags, holding up signs calling for freedom.

About 450,000 people joined the protest, according to police, although an anti-secession group put the number at 85,000.

The demonstration had originally been called to protest the detention of two prominent pro-independence activists who are awaiting possible sedition charges, but it turned into an outcry over Rajoy’s move.

Thousands in a rally protest hours after the Spanish PM’s announcement (EPA)

Even moderate Catalans were aghast as the announcement was met with banging pots and honking cars.

The city’s mayor, Ada Colau, who opposes independence without a valid referendum, called Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s measures “a serious attack” on the self-government of Catalonia.

Others went further – Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell accused Spain’s central authorities of carrying out a coup.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy addresses a press conference on Saturday (EPA)

“Mariano Rajoy has announced a de facto coup d’etat with the goal of ousting a democratically elected government,” Forcadell said, calling it “an authoritarian blow within a member of the European Union.”

The special cabinet meeting came three weeks after the October 1 independence referendum, which Spain’s supreme court has ruled illegal.

Catalan leader: Democratically deciding our future is not a crime

The raft of measures also follows an intervention by King Felipe VI in which he slammed what he called an “unacceptable secession attempt”.

The Cabinet meeting was announced on Friday only minutes after Mr Puigdemont threatened to explicitly declare independence if no talks were offered by Madrid.

His warning was contained in a letter to Mr Rajoy shortly before the expiry of a 10am deadline set by the central government for him to backtrack on his calls for secession.

“If the central government persists in impeding  dialogue and continuing its repression, Catalonia’s parliament will proceed … with a vote to formally declare independence,” Mr Puigdemont’s letter said.

Protesters holding pro-independence Catalan Estelada flags raise their hands during a demonstration in Barcelona (AFP/Getty Images)

Mr Rajoy said Article 155 of Spain’s 1978 constitution would be triggered, allowing it to take over the running of the region.

Article 155 has never been invoked in the four decades since democracy was restored at the end of General Franco’s dictatorship.