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Catalan leaders demand talks with Madrid after violent clashes

Police officers stand guard among fire during a protest after a verdict in a trial over a banned Catalonia's independence referendum, in Barcelona, Spain. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Barcelona, Spain Oct 19, 2019, 08.49 PM (IST)

Separatist Catalan leaders on Saturday called on the Spanish government to enter into talks as Barcelona braced for fresh violence after days of clashes between police and protesters.

Nearly 200 people were hurt in another night of clashes with radical separatists hurling rocks and fireworks at police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

A hardcore movement of young separatists, Arran, called for a new demonstration "against repression" for 1600 GMT in central Barcelona.

"We exhort the head of the government to fix today a day and hour to sit with us for unconditional talks," regional president Quim Torra said in a speech.

His demand for "unconditional" negotiations, addressed to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, appeared to be aimed at ensuring that a referendum on independence, currently a non-starter for Madrid, is up for discussion.

Barcelona has been rocked all week by protests against a Spanish court's jailing of nine separatist leaders on sedition charges over a failed independence bid.

Emergency services said Saturday that 152 people were injured in overnight clashes in Barcelona, and dozens more hurt elsewhere in Catalonia, taking the total to 182.

Authorities had already reported 500 injured since protests started Monday even before the latest clashes erupted.

The interior ministry said 83 people were detained in the overnight violence, in addition to 128 arrests police had reported previously.

Smell of burning

"This can't go on, Barcelona does not deserve this," said Ada Colau, the city's leftist mayor on Saturday, condemning "all kinds of violence".

The air in the Catalan capital was heavy with a burning stench as municipal workers cleared the streets of broken glass, rocks and rubber bullets, and repaired pavements where bricks had been ripped out.

"All this is very sad, and is not helping our cause," said Assumpcio Segui, a 75-year old pro-independence pensioner.

Torra urged demonstrators to remain calm, saying "the defence of rights and freedoms must always be expressed peacefully."

Around half a million people had rallied in Barcelona on Friday in the biggest gathering since Monday's court ruling as separatists also called a general strike in the major tourist destination.

While most marchers appeared peaceful, hordes of young protesters went on the rampage near the police headquarters, igniting a huge blaze that sent black smoke into the air as police fired teargas to disperse them, an AFP correspondent said.

Other fires broke out near Plaza de Catalunya at the top of the tourist hotspot Las Ramblas, where hundreds of demonstrators had rallied to defy the police. 

'Our streets'

"Anti-fascist Catalonia!" they roared. "The streets will always be ours!"

Police vans fanned out around the city, sirens screaming as regional police warned people in a message in English on Twitter "not to approach" the city centre. 

Thousands of "freedom marchers" from five regional towns arrived in Barcelona for the rally, which coincided with a general strike. 

That prompted the cancellation of flights and the closure of shops, business and top tourist attractions, including the Sagrada Familia basilica. 

Public transport slowed to a trickle in a region that accounts for about a fifth of Spain's economic output.

Activists also cut off Catalonia's main cross-border highway with France.

Watch: Streets of Barcelona marred by violence as Catalan protesters clash with police

'No surrender'

In downtown Barcelona, luxury shops were closed on the Paseo de Gracia, with blackened, charred patches a reminder of the nightly clashes that have raged since Monday. 

Retired lawyer Jaume Enrich called the Spanish court ruling "the straw that broke the camel's back".  

"Madrid is putting Spanish unity above everything, including basic rights," he told AFP, wearing a badge saying "No surrender".

Spain's Clasico postponed

With the region mired in chaos, football authorities cancelled the Barcelona and Real Madrid Clasico set for October 26 at the Camp Nou stadium. Both clubs had reportedly refused an offer to hold the match in Madrid.

The Supreme Court's explosive decision has thrust the Catalan dispute to the heart of the political debate as Spain heads towards a fourth election in as many years, which is to be held on November 10.