Catalan leader urges mediation with Spain after poll violence

Catalan leader urges mediation with Spain after poll violence

Catalan separatists called for international mediation with the Spanish government as they pushed ahead with plans to declare independence after a violent police crackdown scarred a disputed secession referendum.

The referendum debacle only deepened Spain's most serious political crisis since democratic rule was restored in 1978.

The violence on Sunday in the prosperous north-eastern region left more than 890 civilians and 430 police injured when anti-riot squads moved into polling stations and dispersed voters.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said a regional parliamentary commission would investigate why Spain's anti-riot squads fired rubber bullets, smashed into polling stations and beat protesters with batons to disperse voters in the independence referendum that Spain opposed.

He also urged the 5,000-strong contingent of special Spanish police forces deployed in Catalonia to leave immediately.

Mr Puigdemont called for the EU "to stop looking the other way" and urged Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to accept international mediation in the crisis. He urged the EU to view Catalonia's desire to break away from Spain as a Europe-wide issue.

"This is not a domestic issue. The need for mediation is evident," Mr Puigdemont said.

Calls for restraint came from across Europe, including EU chief Donald Tusk, who appealed to Mr Rajoy to "avoid further escalation and use of force" while agreeing that the independence vote was invalid. Several human rights organisations called for an impartial investigation into the violence.

Of the 893 civilians injured in the melee, two suffered serious wounds, Catalan health authorities said. The Interior Ministry said 39 police received immediate medical treatment and 392 others had scrapes and bruises.

But Spanish authorities commended the police, saying their response to the voting was professional and proportionate. And Spain's interior minister said the 5,000 extra officers deployed to Catalonia would stay as long as necessary.

"I don't think there was such a heavy hand, but in any case, they had to react," said Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis.

Speaking in Rome, Mr Dastis said "some of the pictures are real, some of them are not real" but that police had simply responded when people prevented them from doing their job.

Catalan officials say 90% - an overwhelming majority of the 2.26 million voted for independence from Spain. The central government in Madrid has repeatedly condemned the referendum as unconstitutional and invalid.

The Catalan president said the regional parliament will be asked to declare independence this week after final results are announced - and plenary sessions are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

The euro and Spanish stocks fell today as investors tried to gauge what the weekend unrest in Catalonia means for the future of Spain and European unity.

The referendum fiasco brought Spain and Catalonia closer to a potentially disastrous showdown as each side said Sunday's events proved them right.

Mr Rajoy met with his conservative Popular Party members before seeking a parliamentary session to discuss how to confront Spain's most serious political crisis in decades. He also met with the leaders of the opposition Socialist and Citizens parties to discuss Spain's options, although no immediate consensus emerged.

The impasse developed after Catalan authorities decided to go ahead with Sunday's referendum even after Spain's Constitutional Court suspended it while assessing the claims by Mr Rajoy's government that the vote was illegal. The court has previously ruled against unilateral secession attempts.

Amnesty International said the Spanish police used "excessive and disproportionate" force against people "passively resisting" a judge's order to impede the referendum. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein called on Spain's government to ensure "thorough, independent and impartial investigations" of the violence.

- AP

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