Catalonia Urges Mediation With Spain in Secession Dispute

By ARITZ PARRA and CIARAN GILES

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Catalonia’s leader called Monday for international mediation and for the European Union “to stop looking the other way” in the region’s bid to secede from Spain, a day after a violent crackdown by Spanish police trying to block an independence referendum left hundreds bruised.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont also said a special commission would investigate why Spanish police fired rubber bullets, smashed into polling stations and beat protesters with batons Sunday. He urged Spain’s national police reinforcements to leave the northeastern region.

The violence Sunday left more than 890 civilians injured in the melee, two seriously. The Interior Ministry said 39 police received immediate medical treatment and 392 others had scrapes and bruises. Shocking videos showed police dragging people by the hair, kicking them and hitting them with batons.

Puigdemont called for the EU to consider Catalonia’s desire to break away from Spain as a Europe-wide issue and urged Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government to accept mediation.

“This is not a domestic issue. The need for mediation is evident,” Puigdemont said.

Calls for restraint came from across Europe, including EU chief Donald Tusk, who appealed to Rajoy to “avoid further escalation and use of force” while recognizing the independence vote as invalid. Several human rights organizations called for an impartial investigation into the violence.

But Spanish authorities commended the police, saying their response to the voting was professional and proportionate. And Spain’s interior minister said the 5,000 extra officers deployed to Catalonia would stay as long as necessary.

“I don’t think there was such a heavy hand, but in any case, they had to react,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis, calling the police reaction videos “a matter of interpretation.”

Speaking in Rome, Dastis said “some of the pictures are real, some of them are not real” but that police had simply responded when people prevented them from doing their job.

Catalan officials say an overwhelming majority of the 2.26 million who voted supported independence from Spain — they said 90 percent — but the central government in Madrid has repeatedly condemned the referendum as illegal, unconstitutional and invalid.

The Catalan president said Monday the regional parliament will be asked to declare independence in the next few days after final results are announced.

The referendum debacle brought Spain and Catalonia closer to a potentially disastrous showdown as each side said Sunday’s events proved them right and neither looked prepared to cede ground.

Rajoy held meetings with his conservative Popular Party members before seeking a parliamentary session to discuss how to confront Spain’s most serious political crisis in decades. The prime minister also met with the leaders of the opposition Socialist and Citizens parties to discuss Spain’s options.

The impasse developed after Catalan authorities decided to go ahead with Sunday’s referendum even after Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended it while assessing the claims by Rajoy’s government that the vote was illegal. The court has previously ruled against unilateral secession attempts.

Riot police turned up in Catalonia on Sunday to prevent people from voting and to confiscate ballot boxes, beating and kicking voters who tried to stop them.

Catalonia’s health services said four injured people remained in the region’s hospitals, two of them in serious condition.  On Monday, Spain’s Interior Ministry raised the number of National Police and Civil Guard officers injured from 33 to 431, most of them from kicks, bites and scratches. None were hospitalized.

Amnesty International said the Spanish police force was “excessive and disproportionate” against people “passively resisting” a judge’s order to impede the referendum.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called on Spain’s government to ensure “thorough, independent and impartial investigations” of the violence.

Some Catalans said both sides bore some responsibility for the mayhem.

“I am very annoyed at both sides involved in what happened yesterday,” said Eric Tigra, 56. “I think both sides involved committed grave mistakes. But we must also highlight that if the people of Catalonia go out in the streets and you don’t listen to them, then something is not working right.”

In an editorial, the leading Spanish daily El Pais blamed the Catalan government for Sunday’s “shameful” events but also criticized the Spanish government for its inability to tackle the crisis that began about seven years ago. The newspaper called Sunday “a defeat for our country.”

So far, most European governments, the U.S. and most international bodies have backed Spain in its stance against Catalan independence, fearing that Catalonia could unleash a wave of secessionist movements. French President Emmanuel Macron called Rajoy on Monday to offer support.

“These are times for unity and stability,” EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Monday, urging all sides in Spain to move from confrontation to dialogue.

Catalonia, with the vibrant city of Barcelona as its capital, represents a fifth of Spain’s economy. Polls consistently show that while most of its 7.5 million inhabitants favored a referendum, they are roughly evenly split on independence from Spain.

Those in favor of secession argue that the region contributes more to the national government than it receives in return. Catalonians already enjoy a wide measure of autonomy but the central government still controls taxation and other financial levers, as well as infrastructure projects.

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