60 protesters and police hurt as Spain cabinet meets in Catalonia

Police and separatist protesters clashed in Barcelona. (AFP pic)

BARCELONA: More than 60 people were injured and 13 others arrested as Catalan pro-independence supporters clashed with baton-wielding police on Friday in protests against a Spanish government cabinet meeting in Barcelona, branded a provocation by separatists.

The weekly cabinet meeting usually takes place in Madrid but Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist government decided to hold it in the Catalan capital as part of efforts to reduce tensions.

The timing of the cabinet meeting — a year to the day after Madrid held snap elections in Catalonia after blocking the region’s bid for independence — offended some Catalans. Far from reducing tensions it appeared to have the opposite effect, with some 40,000 people marching peacefully along the Paseo de Gracia main road, but with a firm message; “Let’s topple the regime”.

“This is a provocation. They have come here to provoke us,” said one demonstrator, textile worker Carles Serra, 45.

Away from the peaceful march, protesters threw metal barriers and stones at officers and tried to breach a police barrier a few hundred metres (yards) from where the meeting was taking place.

A total of 62 people were injured, including 35 police officers while 13 people were arrested, regional authorities said.

‘Ungovernable’

Sanchez and the head of Catalonia’s separatist government, Quim Torra, have expressed a commitment to an “effective dialogue” to try to resolve the dispute over the wealthy region’s status within Spain.

At the cabinet meeting itself, the government approved a 22% increase in the minimum wage, a pay hike for public workers and announced investments in infrastructure projects in Catalonia.

“We came here to show (our) affection, (our) attachment to Catalonia,” government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said afterwards.

“We are working for the wellbeing of all our fellow citizens.”

Spain’s wealthiest region, Catalonia is home to some 7.5 million people and has its own language.

A radical separatist group, the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), blocked a dozen main roads from around dawn on Friday, regional transport authorities said.

“We will be ungovernable on December 21,” the group repeatedly tweeted.

The Spanish government sent police reinforcements to Barcelona and Catalan leaders repeated their call for protests to be peaceful.

Divergent positions

Catalonia declared independence in October 2017 after pushing ahead with a banned independence referendum, but Spanish authorities stifled the attempt.

Several Catalan independence leaders were detained on charges of rebellion or misuse of public funds, and prosecutors are seeking jail terms of up to 25 years.

Sanchez took office as prime minister eight months later after winning a surprise vote of no-confidence against the previous conservative government with the support of Catalan separatist parties.

He initially adopted a more conciliatory tone towards Catalonia than his conservative predecessor, but efforts to ease tensions with the region have hit a wall.

Sanchez and Torra were photographed holding talks in Barcelona on Thursday night, drawing fire from both the conservative right and radical separatists.

The leader of the conservative opposition Popular Party in parliament, Dolors Montserrat, branded the meeting “shameful” and “a betrayal of Spain”.

“Dialogue seems like a step backwards to me,” said separatist demonstrator Mariona Godia, 35. “That just looks like a photo aimed at calming people down.”

While Sanchez has proposed giving Catalonia more powers, Torra wants a legally binding referendum on independence.