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Hundreds of thousands of Catalans demand independence from Spain

By Sinikka Tarvainen –

BARCELONA, Spain — Hundreds of thousands of people on Tuesday flooded the streets of Barcelona to demand the independence of the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia — the biggest rally ever in the region’s history.

Police estimated the number of protesters at 1.5 million. Other officials put the estimate lower at 600,000 people, while organizers said there were more than 2 million demonstrators.

The demonstration on the occasion of a Catalan national day had been called by the pro-independence movement ANC, which has staged unofficial local referendums on independence.

The rally had the backing of the region’s governing Catalan nationalist party CiU. Politicians from several other parties also attended.

The rally under the motto “Catalonia, Europe’s next state” was aimed at showing that the region had launched a quest for more self-government, Catalan government spokesman Francesc Homs said.

“Catalonia is not Spain,” read some of the placards carried by demonstrators in a human sea dotted with red-and-yellow Catalan flags.

The region of 7.5 million residents already enjoys one of the widest measures of autonomy among Spain’s 17 regions, including its own police force.

But strivings toward independence have increased as Spain’s economic crisis has worsened, with Catalonia attributing its indebtedness to its limited fiscal autonomy.

“If there is no agreement” on increasing Catalonia’s economic self-government, “the road towards freedom will be open,” regional Prime Minister Artur Mas said Tuesday.

Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, a representative of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party, accused the Catalan regional government of having an “irresponsible” attitude which could spark divisions and conflicts among Spaniards.

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamarria stressed the need for Spanish and European unity at the time of an economic crisis.

Spain faces separatist currents also in the nearby Basque region, where the Basque separatist group ETA laid down arms in October after a 43-year violent campaign.

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