BARCELONA: Thousands of people demonstrating both for and against Catalan independence shut down parts of central Barcelona on Saturday, two days before the anniversary of a vote on secession last year that polarised the wealthy Spanish region.
Tensions remain high in the independence-minded region a year after the October 1 vote deemed illegal by Madrid but celebrated by separatist Catalans.
Pro-independence groups camped out overnight on Friday to prevent a demonstration in support of police deployed in Catalonia during last year’s failed bid to split from Spain. Catalan authorities said almost 1000 people were injured after police tried to stop voting at polling stations across the region a year ago.
Two people were arrested during scuffles between separatist protesters and police on Saturday, in which demonstrators threw paint at riot police keeping them apart from the rival unionist demonstration.
Over several hours pro-independence groups chanting “Neither forgetting nor forgiveness” faced off with unionist protesters chanting “Long live Spain” ahead of a weekend of further demonstrations planned to mark last year’s vote.
Barcelona mayor Ada Colau issued a plea for peace when the first scuffles broke out.
“I make a call for calm,” Colau told Catalunya Radio. “This city has always defended that everyone can exercise their rights to free speech.”
The pro-police march had originally planned to end in another square home to the regional and municipal government seats, but thousands of separatists gathered in the square to force regional authorities to alter the route of the march.
The police march was organized by the police association JUSAPOL, which wants Spain’s two nationwide police forces, the national police and Civil Guard, to be paid as much as Catalonia’s regional police.
JUSAPOL holds marches in cities across Spain, but Saturday’s march in Barcelona comes two days before Catalonia’s separatists plan to remember last year’s referendum on secession that the regional government held despite its prohibition by the nation’s top court.
That Oct. 1 referendum was marred when national police and Civil Guard officers clashed with voters, injuring hundreds.
JUSAPOL spokesman Antonio Vazquez told Catalan television TV3 that while the march’s goal was to demand better salaries, they also wanted to support the national police and Civil Guard officers who had been ordered to dismantle last year’s referendum.