Spanish government dismisses call for Catalan talks as protests resume
By Isla Binnie and Marco Trujilllo
The Spanish government dismissed calls on Saturday from Catalonia's pro-independence regional chief for talks following a wave of violence sparked by the jailing of separatist leaders.
Protesters took to the streets of Barcelona for a sixth straight day, sitting defiantly in one city centre square in front of a row of police vans. "Out, out, out with the Spanish flag," they chanted. "The streets will always be ours."
Three hours after the start of the evening rally there was no sign of the sort of violence that racked Barcelona on Friday when masked youths blocked roads with blazing garbage bins and hurled rocks at security forces.
Catalonia's president, Quim Torra, said the unprecedented unrest did not reflect the peaceful nature of the Catalan independence movement and asked for discussions with Madrid.
"We urge the acting prime minister of the Spanish government to sit at a negotiating table to talk," he told reporters.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Torra must first unequivocally condemn the tumult.
"Mr Torra must strongly condemn the violence, which he has not done so far," Sanchez said in a statement, adding that Torra also needed to build bridges with the many Catalans who do not want secession.
"The government of Spain reiterates that the problem of Catalonia is not independence, which will not occur because it is not legal and nor do the majority of Catalans want it, but rather coexistence," he said.
Torra responded with a brief statement saying he had always denounced violence and accused Sanchez of behaving irresponsibly for refusing to meet. "Once again the acting prime minister has no proposal for Catalonia," he said.
Protests erupted on Monday after Spain's Supreme Court handed down lengthy prison terms to nine Catalan leaders for their role in a failed independence bid in 2017, which included staging a referendum that courts had deemed illegal.
Spain's main parties have consistently refused to hold a plebiscite on secession, although Sanchez's Socialists have said they are open to dialogue on other issues.
Independence is a highly divisive issue in Catalonia, which is Spain's wealthiest region and has some 7.5 million inhabitants and its own language, parliament and flag.
An opinion poll in July showed backing for secession at its lowest level in two years, with 48.3% of people against and 44% in favour.
Highlighting the splits, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, does not support the secessionist movement and she bemoaned the damage inflicted on her city this past week. "Barcelona does not deserve what we are living through," she said.
Some 300 people have been arrested in the clashes that have flared throughout the region and Spain's acting interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, defended police from accusations they had been heavy-handed.
"The situation is under control. There is serious, organised violence ... but I reiterate that we are not being overwhelmed," he said after visiting injured police in hospital.
Barcelona is Spain's second largest city and draws millions of tourists each year. Some visitors said they had been shocked by what they saw on Friday.
"We got here and were like 'Oh God'. The street was on fire in front of the hostel," said Flynn Winstanley, 18, a winery worker from Margaret River in Australia.