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Spanish police move to prevent Catalan independence vote

Spanish National Police prevents people from entering a voting site at a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 1 Oct. 2017. Catalan pro-referendum supporters vowed Saturday to ignore a police ultimatum to leave the schools they are occupying to use in a vote seeking independence from Spain. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Spanish riot police have forced their way into a polling station in Catalonia where the regional leader was expected to vote in the disputed independence referendum.

Civil Guard riot police with shields used a hammer to smash the glass of the front door of the voting centre and lock cutters to force their way in.

Scuffles erupted outside between police and people waiting to vote at the centre in Sant Julia de Ramis, near the Catalan city of Girona.

Television footage showed police using batons to disperse the crowds gathered outside the local sports centre.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont had been scheduled to vote there this morning. He has spearheaded the separatist politicians' push to go ahead with the vote, despite a Constitutional Court suspension and fierce opposition by central authorities.

He later voted in the village of Cornella del Terri in the province of Girona, the regional government said, not in the village originally planned where police broke down the door of the voting station.

At least one woman was injured outside the centre in Sant Julia de Ramis and wheeled away on a stretcher by paramedics.

Polling station workers inside the building reacted peacefully and broke out into songs and chants challenging the officers' presence.

National police and Guardia Civil officers also showed up in other polling centres where Catalan officials were expected.

Catalans defied rain and police orders to visit designated polling stations for the banned referendum on the region's secession that has challenged Spain's political and institutional order.

Reporters saw ballot boxes wrapped in plastic bags being carried into some of the polling stations in Barcelona occupied by parents, children and activists before some polling stations opened.

The plastic ballot boxes, bearing the seal of the Catalan regional government, were placed on tables, prompting the cheering of hopeful voters that had gathered in schools before dawn.

Some 2,300 facilities had been designated as polling stations, but it was unclear how many were able to open.

Spain's Ministry of Interior did not provide a number late on Saturday when it said that "most" of them had been sealed off and that only "some" remained occupied.

Police have received orders to avoid the use of force and only have been warning people to vacate the facilities. They are also supposed to confiscate ballots and ballot boxes.

But there were some scenes of violence in central Barcelona, with police officers using batons and firing rubber bullets to disperse crowds, television footage showed.

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In an effort to overcome myriad obstacles, Catalan officials announced that voters would be allowed to cast ballots in any location and using ballots printed at home, rather than in designated polling stations as previously announced.

Regional government spokesman Jordi Turull also said that a group of "academics and professionals" would serve as election observers. The official electoral board appointed by the regional parliament was disbanded last week to avoid hefty fines by Spain's Constitutional Court.

"We are under conditions to be able to celebrate a self-determination referendum with guarantees," Mr Turull said in a press conference. "Our goal is that all Catalans can vote."

Tension has been on the rise since the vote was called in early September, crystalising years of defiance by separatists in the affluent region.

Spain's 2008-2013 financial crisis and harsh austerity measures fuelled frustration in Catalonia for setbacks in efforts to gain greater autonomy, with many Catalans feeling they could do better on their own.

Courts and police have been cracking down for days to halt the vote, confiscating 10 million paper ballots and arresting key officials involved in the preparations.

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On Saturday, Civil Guard agents dismantled the technology to connect voting stations, count the votes and vote online, leading the Spanish government to announce that holding the referendum would be "impossible".

Joaquim Bosch, a 73-year-old retiree at Princep de Viana high school, where a crowd of 20 people was growing on Sunday morning, said he was uneasy about a possible police response to the crowds.

"I have come to vote to defend the rights of my country, which is Catalonia," Mr Bosch said.

"I vote because of the mistreatment of Catalonia by Spain for many years."

On Saturday, Spain's foreign minister dismissed the planned vote as anti-democratic, saying it runs "counter to the goals and ideals" of the European Union.

"What they are pushing is not democracy. It is a mockery of democracy, a travesty of democracy," Alfonso Dastis said.

Spanish riot police also forcefully removed a few hundred would-be voters from a polling station at a school in Barcelona.

Daniel Riano was inside when the police pushed aside a large group gathered outside the Estela school's front door.

The 54-year-old said that "we were waiting inside to vote when the National Police used force to enter, they used a mace to break in the glass door and they took everything".

He said that "one policeman put me in a headlock to drag me out, while I was holding my wife's hand. It was incredible. They didn't give any warning".

Ferran Miralles said a crowd scuffled with police outside as they formed a tight perimeter around the door. Mr Miralles said "they were very aggressive. They pushed me out of the way".

Elsewhere in Barcelona, police detained several people outside the Treball voting centre amid scuffles on the street. Officers dragged some of the protesters away and detained them.

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