Thousands take to the streets of Barcelona to protest at jailing of separatist leaders
Catalonia refused on Tuesday to bow to the Spanish government's demand that it renounce a symbolic declaration of independence, setting it on a political collision course with Madrid later this week.
Madrid has threatened to put Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy, under direct central rule if its regional government does not abandon independence by Thursday.
But Catalonia's government rejected Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's deadline.
"Giving in forms no part of this government's scenarios," Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull said. "On Thursday, we won't give anything different than what we gave on Monday."
Spain's biggest political crisis in decades worsened on Monday night when Madrid's High Court jailed the heads of Catalonia's two main separatist groups pending an investigation for alleged sedition.
The Catalan government accused Madrid of taking "political prisoners" and tens of thousands of protesters gathered along Barcelona's Diagonal Avenue to call for their release.
People held up lighted candles, whistled and shouted "freedom" and "out with the occupying forces".
"There should not be political prisoners in a democratic country in the 21st century. This country is not democratic. I'm here to support democracy," said Alicia Cabreriza, a 26-year-old computer programmer from Barcelona.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, in a tweet following the detentions, said: "Sadly, we have political prisoners again."
The phrase was an allusion to the military dictatorship under Francisco Franco, when Catalan culture and language were systematically suppressed. It carries an emotional resonance given fascism is still a living memory for many Spaniards.
Justice Minister Rafael Catala hit back, saying the jailing of the leaders of the separatist groups, the Catalan National Assembly and Omnium, was a judicial, not a political, decision.
"We can talk of politicians in prison but not political prisoners," he said. "These are not political prisoners because yesterday's prison ruling was due to a (suspected) crime."
The crisis has deepened divisions at the heart of Spain's young democracy, underlining the complex sense of nationhood in the euro zone's fourth largest economy.
In Madrid, unionists drape their homes in the national flag, while Barcelona apartment buildings are festooned with Catalan flags. Street protests of hundreds of thousands of people have been held on both sides of the divide, including in Catalonia.
"They've crossed a line," said Eulalia López, a 54-year-old office worker in Barcelona.
She said she and her colleagues would come out onto the streets if Madrid went ahead and took control of the region.