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Riot police fire rubber bullets, storm polling stations in Catalonia

BARCELONA Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets and forced their way into activist-held polling stations in Catalonia yesterday as thousands flooded the streets to vote in an independence referendum banned by Madrid.

More than 460 people were injured in the disturbances, local authorities said, as police cracked down on what the Spanish central government has branded a "farce".

"Spanish democracy faces its greatest challenge," headlined top-selling El Pais daily just hours before police moved in en masse to seal off polling stations and seize ballot boxes, sparking scuffles as they sought to block the vote.

More than 5.3 million people have been called upon to have their say on independence from Spain in the wealthy north-eastern region which has its own distinct language and culture.

The referendum poses the question: "Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?"

But it has been ruled unconstitutional by the central government and the courts, with judicial officials ordering police to seize ballot papers, detain key organisers and shut down websites promoting the vote.

Thousands of Spanish police fanned out across the region yesterday, forcing their way into polling stations.

In central Barcelona, riot police charged at demonstrators who were sitting on the ground blocking their way after they raided a polling station at a school, witnesses said.

They said police also fired rubber bullets, with one man showing AFP a leg injury he suffered.

The crackdown drew a sharp rebuke from Catalan leaders.

"The unjustified use of violence, which is both irrational and irresponsible, by the Spanish state will not stop the will of the Catalan people," Catalan president Carles Puigdemont said.

"The head of a cowardly government has flooded our city with police," Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau tweeted.

Although Catalans are divided over independence, most want to vote on the matter in a legal, binding plebiscite.

Meanwhile, the La Liga match between Barcelona and Las Palmas was played behind closed doors at the Nou Camp after Spanish league authorities refused to postpone the match. - WIRE SERVICES

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