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Catalan parliament paves way for independence vote

Lawmakers in Catalonia have paved the way for a vote on independence from Spain despite fierce resistance from the region's political opposition and central authorities in Madrid.

The votes of 72 pro-independence members of the Catalan parliament were enough to pass a so-called "referendum bill" after more than 11 hours of heated debate.

Eleven lawmakers abstained from voting but 52 opposition members of parliament walked out in protest.

The cabinet of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont was expected to immediately sign a decree setting the vote for October 1 and opening a deep political and institutional crisis.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy immediately requested a report on the Catalan law from the State Council, a step that will allow him to call an urgent cabinet meeting on Thursday and to challenge the regional bill through an appeal to the Constitutional Court, a government source told The Associated Press.

Under current constitutional rules, only central authorities in Spain have the right to call a referendum.

Mr Puigdemont's government claims it has a democratic mandate to seek a binding independence referendum based on the universal right to self-determination and the regional law approved on Wednesday.

The leader of the main opposition party in Catalonia, Ciudadanos (Citizens) leader Ines Arrimadas, immediately announced she would seek parliamentary support for a no-confidence vote against Mr Puigdemont that would force new regional elections.

Wednesday's parliamentary debate in Barcelona saw tensions flare when the regional body's top speaker, Carme Forcadell, announced the vote on the bill would go ahead without the customary vetting of a legal committee.

The vote had not appeared on the day's agenda until the very last minute.

In response to the move, Spain's public prosecutor announced it was readying legal paperwork to sue the speakers, including Ms Forcadell, for disobeying previous court orders and for abusing power.

Amid the chaos, accusations of procedural flaws by the opposition and numerous pauses in the meeting, Spain's deputy prime minister made a televised appearance to announce Mr Rajoy's conservative government was urging the Constitutional Court to take punitive measures against the Catalan legislative body's committee of speakers.

Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said Catalonia's parliament was holding a "fake debate" that she dubbed as an "embarrassing show" and "a kick to democracy, to Catalans and to political decency".

"We are defending the rule of law in Spain and democracy in Catalonia," the deputy prime minister said.

The Spanish government is trying to strike a delicate balance between offsetting the secessionist defiance and staying away from more dramatic measures that would further inflame anti-Spanish sentiments, such as suspending Catalonia's autonomous powers or declaring a state of emergency that would bring the army into the mix.

In a show of political unity at the national level, the leaders of the Socialists and the business-friendly Ciudadanos party held conversations with Mr Rajoy on Wednesday.

The Socialist leader had a scheduled meeting with the conservative prime minister on Thursday.

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