People raise their hands during a students' protest in Barcelona, Spain, October 16, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Pro-independence groups began protest marches in Catalonia on Wednesday against the jailing of nine separatist leaders, despite a new warning by the Spanish government that it will step in if needed to guarantee security.

The government said it would act firmly but proportionately to keep order after protesters threw cans, stones and flares at baton-wielding police and set garbage cans ablaze on Tuesday in Barcelona, the regional capital. Thirty were arrested.

The confrontations are a challenge both for the northeastern region’s pro-independence leader, Quim Torra, and the Madrid-based Spanish government led by acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

“Sanchez has sent … a clear message: he does not rule out any scenario, everything is planned and he will act, if necessary, firmly (and) in a proportional manner,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement as he met leaders of the main national parties to seek a common response to the unrest.

The Socialist leader, who faces an election on Nov. 10, is under pressure from right-wing parties to be tougher on Catalonia and activate a national security law to take control of the region’s security forces.

“The government must apply the national security law now so that Quim Torra isn’t at any time in charge of the security” of the region, the leader of the conservative People’s Party, Pablo Casado, said after meeting Sanchez.

Madrid-based politicians have been pressing Torra to condemn the violence but he did not do so when asked by reporters to comment on Tuesday’s clashes.

“What it is important here is to see these people rejecting the sentences,” Torra said as he took part in a protest march near the separatist stronghold of Girona. “It’s fantastic to see the people mobilising.”

Protesters took to the streets after the nine separatist leaders, who were involved in a failed independence attempt in 2017, received jail sentences ranging from nine to 13 years.

Catalonia’s independence drive has caused a severe political crisis for Spain, Europe’s fourth largest economy, and Madrid’s reaction is watched closely by other European countries, such as Scotland, where there are also movements for independence.

After the failed independence bid in 2017, more than 4,000 companies moved their headquarters out of Catalonia, including Catalan banks CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell.

More pro-independence protests are planned in Barcelona and Madrid on Wednesday evening and throughout the week.

La Liga, Spain’s top soccer league, asked the Spanish Football Federation to move a match scheduled between Barcelona and Real Madrid on Oct. 26 to Madrid because of the protests.

Protesters set off from several municipalities in Catalonia on marches called by two pro-independence groups that have organised many peaceful protests over the past years and were not behind the protests that turned violent on Tuesday.

The marchers plan to reach Barcelona on Friday, when supporters of independence and local labour unions have called for a general strike and demonstrations in Catalonia.

Health officials said after Tuesday’s protests that first aid had been provided to 125 people and regional police said 43 officers were hurt.

“It’s sad to see the city like that but it’s also sad to see the people in jail,” Rafael Miro, 67, said as cleaners swept away charred garbage containers.

Others regretted the violence and setting of fires.

“This seemed a bit too strong for me because you had seniors in the streets, you had minors who got hit and ended up seriously injured,” said a 20-year-old woman who gave her name only as Marina.

Spain’s Supreme Court issued a European arrest warrant on Monday for Catalonia’s former leader, Carles Puigdemont, who lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

The Brussels prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday it had received the request. Belgium rejected two earlier extradition requests and a spokeswoman for the prosecutor said it may take weeks to reach a decision on the new request.


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