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Friday 20 July 2018

Roads and rail services blocked amid Catalan general strike

Demonstrators block a highway during a general strike in Borrassa, near Girona (AP)
Demonstrators block a highway during a general strike in Borrassa, near Girona (AP)
Demonstrators block a highway during a general strike in Borrassa, near Girona (AP)

Pro-independence protesters have blocked roads and stopped trains as part of a general strike in Catalonia to protest against the jailing of ousted Catalan government officials and secessionist activists.

Big traffic jams were reported on roads leading to Catalan cities, including the regional capital Barcelona, and on major highways.

But the strike was not backed by Spain's two main unions and was not reported to be having any major effect on industry or the region's prized tourism sector.

National railway operator Renfe said services were halted on dozens of local lines as protesters blocked railway lines.

Several national high-speed lines were also affected.

In northern Girona, several protesters pushed past police controls to enter the city's main railway station. Later, dozens of others occupied the tracks.

Intersindical CSC, a platform of pro-independence workers' unions, had called the strike over labour issues. However, separatist parties and civil society groups asked workers to join the stoppage to protest over the Spanish government's moves against the Catalan bid for independence.

At midday, several thousand pro-independence protesters packed a central square in Barcelona, waving separatist flags and chanting "Freedom" for the 10 people in custody in a judicial probe into rebellion and sedition in the days before and after Catalonia's parliament ignored Spanish court rulings and declared independence on October 27.

Six hours later, thousands gathered again to keep up the pressure on the Madrid-based national government. Some shouted: "Free the political prisoners."

Agusti Alcoberro, the vice president of the grass-roots Catalan National Assembly told the midday crowd the arrests were an attack on democracy and a humiliation of Catalan people.

Spanish authorities took the unprecedented step of seizing control of Catalonia, one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions, after a majority of regional lawmakers there ignored Constitutional Court orders and passed an independence declaration on October 27.

Spain removed the regional government, dissolved the parliament and called a new regional election for next month.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the elections should open "a new political era" in the region with the return to normality and respect for Spain's laws.

Eight members of the dismissed Catalan Cabinet and two activists were sent to jail as a Spanish court studies possible charges of rebellion and sedition against them.

Former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and four of his aides have fled to Brussels, where they are fighting Spanish arrest and extradition orders.

Their presence in the European capital is sowing divisions within the Belgian government. Some Belgian MPs have criticised Prime Minister Charles Michel for not taking tougher action against Mr Puigdemont, while others complain that the Catalan leader's presence is inflaming Flemish separatist sentiments in Belgium.

Speaking to Belgian MPs, Mr Michel refused to comment on Mr Puigdemont's political actions, saying that his case must be handled by judicial authorities alone.

He said: "Mr Puigdemont is a European citizen who must be held accountable for his actions just like any other European citizens - with rights and obligations but no privileges. "

Mr Michel also stressed that the Spanish government remains his partner.

Catalonia, with 7.5 million people, represents a fifth of Spain's gross domestic product and polls show its people roughly evenly divided over independence.

Mr Puigdemont claimed a banned October 1 secession referendum gave it a mandate to declare independence.

AP

Press Association

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