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.

Read more:Catalonia: 'Rajoy will not make concessions to anyone'

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.

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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.

Weeks after Catalan President Carles Puigdemont held a referendum on self-rule, which was declared illegal by the Spanish courts, he has become the target of a European Arrest Warrant after fleeing to Belgium with four of his ministers. 

Nine other Catalan cabinet members have been remanded in custody, charged with rebellion and other alleged crimes, after Madrid authorities removed the entire regional government from office.

Extradition considered

On Saturday, authorities in Belgium said they would consider whether Puigdemont could be extradited to Spain to face trial.

Read more: The Catalonia crisis - What's next?

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Speaking to the media during the Bilbao protest, Arnaldo Otegi, leader of Basque pro-independence party EH Bildu and a former jailed ETA member, decried the recent events in Catalonia.

"In the face of this situation, it's necessary that the Basques take to the streets, as we're doing today, and build a popular, democratic wall that allows us to confront this situation," he said.

While several separatist political parties attended Saturday's rally, the Basque Nationalist Party, which rules the autonomous region, refused to officially take part.

Puigdemont has urged all pro-independence political parties in Catalonia to join a coalition for the region's December 21 election.

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.

Politics

The declaration

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.

Politics

The despair

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.

Politics

The dismissal

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."

Politics

The dispute

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.

Politics

The defiance

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.

Politics

The dream

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.

Politics

The delight

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)

mm/bw (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)