Thousands of Basque protesters take sides in Catalonia dispute
More than 40,000 people have rallied in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao in anger at Spain's direct rule of Catalonia. The Basque Country region has its own separatist movement, which for decades turned bloody.
Protests against Madrid's handling of the Catalan crisis spread to another Spanish region on Saturday, as the streets of the northern city of Bilbao in the Basque Country were awash with protesters waving umbrellas.
According to the regional paper Naiz, some 44,000 people took part in the rally, which was called by several Basque Country pro-independence groups, the ultraleft party Podemos' regional branch and several labor unions.
The Basque region has, until recently, seen decades of violence by the paramilitary group ETA which left some 850 people dead. ETA surrendered its weapons earlier this year, effectively ending its campaign of terror, after the region won financial concessions from Madrid.
The organizers of Saturday's rally said they were angry at how the Madrid government had imposed direct rule on Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain's northeast, following an independence referendum.
Some protesters carried a banner that read "No to 155. Democracy and right to decide," in reference to Article 155 of Spain's constitution, which Madrid triggered a week ago to suspend Catalonia's regional autonomy. Spain also called a snap election for the region next month.
The president has said he would consider running in the election, even if he has to campaign for his center-right separatist Catalan European Democratic Party from afar.
As the world watched, Catalonia's parliament voted 70 to 10 for the region to declare its independence from Spain. "Our legitimate parliament has taken a very important step. This is the people's mandate," Puigdemont said after the decision. Dozens of opposition lawmakers from the Socialist Party, Citizens Party and Popular Party had walked out of the parliament chamber to boycott the vote.
Within an hour of the Catalan vote, the Spanish Senate in Madrid passed a bill to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. The measure will allow the central government to suspend Catalonia's autonomy. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he would sack Catalonia’s government and set new regional elections for December 21.
European leaders were quick to condemn the independence declaration. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the Union "doesn't need any more cracks," while EU Council President Donald Tusk said Madrid "remains our only interlocutor." Leaders in Germany, France, Italy and the UK voiced their support for Madrid. The US also chimed in, saying "Catalonia is an integral part of Spain."
Barcelona and Madrid had been in a standoff since 93 percent of voters opted for Catalan independence in an October 1 referendum marred by police violence. Spain said the poll was illegal and stressed the low voter turnout of 43 percent. It subsequently threatened to suspend the region's autonomy if Catalan leaders did not stop their drive for independence.
Many had expected tensions to ease on October 26 when Catalan President Carles Puigdemont was expected to call snap elections to bow to a key Spanish government demand. But Puigdemont refused, saying that he did not have enough "guarantees" from Madrid. Instead, he called on the Catalan parliament to decide on how to respond to Spain's threat to suspend the region's autonomy.
Tens of thousands of pro-independence protesters had taken to the streets of Barcelona ahead of the independence declaration to demand the region's secession and the release of two leaders of pro-independence organizations, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez. Independence has divided Catalonia. Many who supported continued unity with Spain refused to vote in the October 1 referendum.
The pro-independence crowds outside the Catalan parliament immediately rejoiced after hearing the independence declaration. Many people were draped in the "Estelada" flag associated with Catalan independence. Some reportedly called for the Spanish flag to be removed from the Catalan government palace as regional lawmakers arrived from the parliament. (Author: Alexander Pearson)