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Spain to suspend Catalan autonomy

Pro independence supporter puts beside him an "estelada" or pro independence flag during a rally in support for the secession of the Catalonia region from Spain, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. Last week, Spain's constitutional court decided to suspend an independence referendum that Catalan leaders had penciled in for Oct. 1 while judges decide if it is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Spain is to hold a special Cabinet meeting at the weekend to activate measures to take control of Catalonia's semi-autonomous powers after the region's leader said he would formally declare independence if no talks were offered.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont's warning came in a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with minutes to spare before the expiry of a deadline set by the central government for him to backtrack on his calls for secession.

"If the government continues to impede dialogue and continues with the repression, the Catalan parliament could proceed, if it is considered opportune, to vote on a formal declaration of independence," Sr Puigdemont said in a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Marian Rajoy.

Spain's government quickly responded with a statement saying it was calling a special Cabinet session for Saturday in which it would trigger the process to activate Article 155 of Spain's Constitution. It allows for central authorities to take over the semi-autonomous powers of any of the country's 17 regions, including Catalonia.

The Cabinet meeting will "approve the measures that will be sent to the Senate to protect the general interest of all Spaniards", the statement said.

The measure has never been used in the four decades since democracy was restored at the end of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship.

Spain's government needs to outline the exact measures it wants to apply in Catalonia and submit them for a vote in Spain's Senate.

The ruling Partido Popular’s majority in the top chamber would be enough to approve the measure, but Sr Rajoy has held discussions with opposition leaders to rally further support.

Catalans would consider the application of the measure an "invasion" of the region's self-government, while Spain's central authorities have portrayed it as an undesired move, yet a necessary one, to restore legality after Sr Puigdemont's government pushed ahead with a banned referendum that violated the country's constitution.

More than 40% of Catalonia's 5.5 million eligible voters cast ballots in the illegal referendum on October 1 as police used violence to try to enforce a court order to stop it from going ahead. Opponents boycotted the vote.

Catalan officials said hundreds of people were injured in police violence, while Spanish authorities said hundreds of police officers were also hurt and the use of force was proportional to the resistance they met.

The separatists declared an overwhelming victory despite the boycott by opponents and on the grounds that it was illegal and lacked basic guarantees such as an independent electoral board.

Spain's government had said it would be willing to delay applying Article 155 if the Catalan separatist leader was to call a snap regional election. But Catalan officials have ruled that out.
The Catalan government's international affairs director, Raul Romeva, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday that Catalonia's banned secession referendum gave the region's separatist government a mandate to declare independence from Spain.

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