Thousands march in Barcelona to demand a united Spain
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A marcher with a hat with the coat of arms of the Spanish flag on Spain's National Day in Barcelona. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

Thousands of people marched through Barcelona on the country’s national day on Thursday waving both Spanish and Catalan flags in a demonstration of opposition to the region’s push for independence.

Chanting “I am Spanish” and “Long Live Spain”, an estimated crowd of 65,000 marched on the city’s central square. A separate far-right march of some 200 people ended with the burning of the unofficial flag that has become a symbol for Catalan separatists.

The turnout is far smaller than hundreds of thousands who turned out on Sunday to protest the push for independence by the region’s president, Carles Puigdemont, but highlighted the continuing deep divisions over the issue.

"We are now feeling that years of threats by separatists have turned into an attempt to normalize social division," said Juan Jose Garde, a 63-year-old retired civil servant.

The march passed off peacefully despite a brief fracas before the start of the march when two rival groups hurled chairs at each other before the two groups were separated by police.

Mr Puigdemont declared independence on Tuesday but suspended the move to allow for further discussions with the central government.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s response was dismissive, calling on Mr Puigdemont to retract the independence bid by Thursday at the latest.

If the Catalan leader failed to do that, he indicated that he would take partial or total control of the region using powers allowed under Spain’s constitution.

Mr Rajoy responded in a tweet: “We demand dialogue and the response is to put article 155 on the table. Message understood.”

Demanes diàleg i et responen posant el 155 damunt la taula. Entesos.

— Carles Puigdemont (@KRLS) October 11, 2017

The ending of Catalonia’s autonomy brings the prospect of a return to the streets of police to impose rule, following the violent clashes that marked the October 1 that left an estimated 900 people hurt and inflamed Catalans.

Mr Puigdemont on Thursday tweeted a link to a Human Rights Watch report that was critical of the Spanish police response to the October 1 referendum, which was declared illegal by the Spanish courts.

Mr Puigdemont has cited the poll to bolster his claim that he was following the will of the people with his declaration of independence. Some 2.3 million people voted in the election – some 43 per cent of the region’s population – with 90 percent backing independence, according to officials. Opponents of the referendum boycotted the poll.

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The largest national day march was held in Madrid where troops and police paraded in front of King Felipe VI, who last week denounced the independence bid in a rare televised address to the nation.

Thousands of people lined the route of the procession waving Spanish flags on a day that commemorates Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America.

Officials from the Basque and Catalan regions, which have the strongest independence movements, have boycotted the parade for years. Some town halls in Catalonia said they would ignore the holiday and work as normal.

The pilot of a fighter jet who took in the Madrid parade died when his plane crashed while landing at a base at Albacete, some 200 miles southeast of the capital.



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