BARCELONA, Spain — The Latest on Catalonia’s plans to hold a referendum Sunday on breaking away from Spain (all times local):
Thousands of people have rallied in a central Madrid plaza to protest the Catalan regional government’s push to hold a referendum on separating the region from Spain.
Spanish unity supporters packing Cibeles Plaza on Saturday morning shouted “Viva Espana,” and “Puigdemont To Jail!”
Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont, who openly favors breaking away from Spain, is among those promoting the independence referendum scheduled for Sunday.
The anti-secession demonstration was the biggest in Madrid since the referendum was called earlier this year. Similar demonstrations were held in other Spanish towns and cities.
While Spanish flags were everywhere at the Madrid demonstration, some of the protesters donned the flag used during Spain’s long right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. It features an eagle in the middle.
A top Spanish security official in Catalonia says police have sealed off more than half of the 2,315 polling stations designated for a disputed referendum on the region’s independence from Spain.
Enric Millo, the highest-ranking Spanish official in the northeastern region, said parents and students were found to be occupying 163 schools and holding activities when police were sealing off facilities on Saturday.
The regional police force has been ordered not to use force, but to vacate the schools by 6 a.m. on Sunday, ahead of the scheduled opening of polls at 9 a.m.
Millo says anyone remaining in schools after 6 a.m. will need to be removed in line with a judge’s orders, but predicts there won’t be significant problems.
He said: “I trust in the common sense of Catalans and that people will operate with prudence.”
Millo says the government is ready to ensure safety as significant numbers of people are expected to take their political views to the streets on Sunday.
The Spanish government’s appointee in Catalonia says the technology infrastructure for voting and counting ballots from the region’s disputed secession vote has been dismantled, making the referendum “absolutely impossible.”
Enric Millo, the highest-ranking Spanish central government official in the region, said Civil Guard agents acting on a judge’s order searched on Saturday the headquarters of CTTI, the Catalan regional center in charge of technology and communications.
Millo says the agents disabled software designed to connect more than 2,300 polling stations and to share results, as well as applications for voting online.
He ruled out any possibility of “an effective referendum, with legal guarantees and binding in the way that the Catalan regional government has promised.”
Catalan officials have vowed to go ahead with Sunday’s vote even though Spain’s Constitutional Court has put the referendum on hold.
Spain’s foreign minister says the Catalan regional government’s plan to hold an independence referendum is a mockery of democracy.
In an interview with the Associated Press on Saturday, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said: “What they are pushing is not democracy. It is a mockery of democracy, a travesty of democracy.”
Dastis accused the Catalan government of trying to promote an exclusionary system that runs counter to the goals and ideals the European Union is trying to advance.
He says voter referendums can’t be equated with democracy and asserts they actually are the “instrument of choice of dictators.”
The Spanish government maintains the referendum is unconstitutional and the country’s Constitutional Court suspended the vote so it could consider the matter. Catalan officials say they plan to hold the referendum anyway.
Catalan police are telling parents that they must vacate schools so officers can carry out orders to impede a referendum on Catalonia’s secession from Spain.
Quim Roy, a father of two daughters in Barcelona, says police officers told the few dozen parents and children at the Congres-Indians primary school they can’t display campaign materials in favor of the disputed referendum and must leave the premises by 6.00 a.m. Sunday.
Parents supporting the referendum have organized across the northeastern region to occupy schools throughout the weekend so they can be used as polling stations come Sunday morning.
The vote has been suspended by Spain’s Constitutional Court and police have received orders to stop ballots from being cast on Sunday. The regional government has pressed ahead and called on residents to vote.
Parents, children and activists in Catalonia are starting a day of activities after spending the night in schools designated as polling stations for Sunday’s vote on the region’s independence from Spain.
Yoga sessions, film screenings and picnics have been organized at some of the 2,315 voting facilities that referendum supporters are trying to keep police from shutting down.
The Spanish government considers the referendum illegal and the country’s Constitutional Court has suspended it, but regional separatists have vowed to go ahead with balloting.
The Catalan police force is under orders to empty the buildings by early Sunday. Officers have been directed to refrain from using violence to remove parents and students.
How the 17,000 regional officers respond to the vacate order is seen as key to the success or failure of the planned vote.
Across Europe, people are watching Catalonia’s independence referendum closely and nervously — but quietly.
A strong turnout that results in a majority vote for the “yes” side on Sunday could embolden other breakaway-minded regions. A secession trend on the continent would put new strains on the European Union.
Scotland, Belgium’s Flanders region and the Faroe Islands under Denmark’s control are some of the places with independence movements.
Despite tensions behind the scenes, most European leaders are shying away from taking a public stand on Catalonia.
They’re reluctant to back either the Catalan separatists who are bucking Spanish law to hold the referendum or Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s heavy-handed efforts to block it.
The EU’s silence has been especially conspicuous since Catalan officials appealed to the bloc directly to mediate the dispute.
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