Thousands rally in Barcelona against separation

BARCELONA Police said around 300,000 protesters wrapped in Spanish flags flocked to Barcelona yesterday to rally against plans by separatist leaders to declare Catalonia independent following a banned secession referendum.

Catalans calling themselves a "silent majority" opposed to leaving Spain broke their silence after a week of mounting anxiety over Spain's worst political crisis in a generation.

Thousands of people gathered on the city's Urquinaona square waving red and yellow flags and singing "Viva Espana".

"We have perhaps been silent too long," said Mr Alejandro Marcos, 44.

"It seems that the one who yells the most wins the argument. So we have to raise our voices and say loud and clear that we do not want independence."

On the eve of the rally, Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy issued a stern warning to Catalan leaders who have said they could declare independence this week.

He did not rule out suspending Catalonia's regional autonomy - a move that could risk sparking unrest.

"I rule out absolutely nothing that is allowed for under the law," he said in an interview published in the national El Pais newspaper.

"The ideal would be not to have to take drastic measures," he said.

"I would like this threat of a declaration of independence to be withdrawn as quickly as possible."

Yesterday, some protesters even called for the region's separatist president Carles Puigdemont to go to jail for holding a vote on independence in defiance of the Spanish government and courts.

"The unity of Spain cannot be voted on or negotiated - it must be defended," read one sign in the crowd.

Recent polls had indicated that Catalans are split on independence, though leaders said the violence during the referendum turned many against the state authorities. - AFP