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Clashes erupt as Spanish cabinet holds meeting in Catalonia

A riot police hits a masked protestor as demonstrators try to approach the area where Spain's cabinet held a meeting in Barcelona Spain, Friday Dec. 21, 2018. Some scuffles have broken out between protesters trying to reach the venue of the cabinet meeting and police trying to stop them on Friday in central Barcelona after pro-independence organizations called for peaceful demonstrations against the meeting across the city.(AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

By Joseph Wilson and Aritz Parra, Associated Press

Thousands of pro-independence protesters angry about Spain's cabinet holding a meeting in Catalonia have blocked roads across the region and clashed with anti-riot police in its capital.

Grassroots separatist groups and unions called the protests to show their disgust at Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's decision to lead his weekly cabinet meeting in Barcelona.

The Catalan regional government, formed by a coalition of pro-secession parties, is also supporting peaceful protests despite an agreement with central authorities to find a way out of the political crisis that has festered since Catalonia's failed secession attempt last year.

After their encounter on Thursday, the second since both took power earlier this year, Mr Sanchez and Catalan president Quim Torra issued a joint statement calling for dialogue to settle the conflict over the future of the north-eastern region.

That outcome was beyond the low expectations that had been placed before the talks, when disagreement over their scope and format kept officials negotiating until the very last minute.

Mr Sanchez, who inherited the Catalan crisis when he toppled his conservative predecessor in June, made mending relations with the prosperous region one of his priorities.

But despite the progress, distrust prevailed.

Security in the prosperous region, normally in the hands of the Catalan police, has been reinforced, with hundreds of anti-riot officers sent by Spain's national police forces for Friday's ministers' meeting.

"It is a provocation," said Oriol Benet, a 24-year-old pharmacist who joined others marching near the headquarters of the National Police in Barcelona.

Spanish television broadcast live Mr Sanchez's walk from his hotel to the 14th-century Gothic palace in central Barcelona.

It was an attempt to display a sense of normalcy but instead showed the prime minister walking through empty streets heavily guarded by police.

Metres away, a crowd of mostly young protesters jeered: "Go away! Go away!"

Police charged to keep them at bay when they moved rubbish bins and tried to break the double security cordon shielding the meeting's venue.

The regional Mossos d'Esquadra police force said that one of four protesters arrested for public order offences carried material to manufacture Molotov cocktails.

In the northern province of Girona, a main road was blocked with tyres and barricades, and at least a dozen more roads saw disruptions, according to the regional transit authorities.

Carrying a banner calling for the release of nine jailed Catalan politicians and activists who face a rebellion trial, Carme Almarza said she did not trust the politicians' agreement.

"Not until I see the prisoners freed," the 52-year-old social worker said.

"Any chance to talk is good," said Carlos Castilla, watching from a distance as protesters launched smoke bombs.

"It is clear the status quo doesn't work, they agreed on that. I think the answer is more self-government and that Catalonia manages its own finances."

Mr Sanchez, who has been harshly criticised by the right-wing opposition for his meeting with Mr Torra, has presented the meeting in Barcelona as "a way of showing affection to Catalonia".

The cabinet is expected to rename the Barcelona airport in honour of Josep Tarradellas, who headed the Catalan government in exile during General Francisco Franco's dictatorship, and raise the country's monthly minimum wage from 736 euros (£663) to 900 euros (£811).

Mr Sanchez, whose minority government controls only a quarter of the national parliament, hopes that the plan's social spending will make it difficult for Catalan separatist parties to reject his 2019 budget in a vote scheduled for January.

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