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Hundreds injured as riot police storm Catalan referendum polling stations
The Spanish government has defended its response to the Catalan independence referendum after more than 700 people were hurt when Spanish riot police stormed polling stations and seized ballot papers in a last-minute effort to stop the vote on Sunday.
Although many Catalans managed to cast their ballots in the poll, which the Spanish authorities have declared illegal, others were forcibly stopped from voting as schools housing ballot boxes were raided by police acting on the orders of the Catalan high court.
The large Ramon Llull school in central Barcelona was the scene of a sustained operation, with witnesses describing police using axes to smash the doors, charging the crowds and firing rubber bullets.
The Catalan health ministry said 761 people were treated in hospitals and clinics, two of them seriously injured. According to the ministry, 335 people were hurt in Barcelona, 187 in Girona, 111 in Lleida, 55 in Terres de l'Ebre, 46 in Catalunya central and 26 in Tarragona.
Spain's interior ministry said 12 police officers had been hurt and three people arrested for disobedience and assaulting officers.
However, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, speaking on Sunday night, said the government had done what it had had to do and thanked the police for acting with "firmness and serenity".
"Today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia. The rule of law remains in force with all its strength."
"We are the government of Spain and I am the head of the government of Spain and I accepted my responsibility," he said.
"We have done what was required of us. We have acted, as I have said from the beginning, according to the law and only according to the law. And we have shown that our democratic state has the resources to defend itself from an attack as serious as the one that was perpetrated with this illegal referendum. Today, democracy has prevailed because we have obeyed the constitution."
The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, who pressed ahead with the referendum despite opposition from the Spanish state and the region's own high court, told crowds that the "police brutality will shame the Spanish state for ever".
Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, demanded an end to the police actions and called for the Rajoy's resignation.
Artur Mas, the former Catalan president whose government staged a symbolic independence referendum three years ago, also called for the "authoritarian" Rajoy to stand down, adding that Catalonia could not remain alongside "a state that uses batons and police brutality".
Enric Millo, the most senior Spanish government official in the region, said the police had behaved "professionally" in carrying out a judge's orders.
Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the Spanish deputy prime minister, echoed that position, saying the police had shown firmness, professionalism and proportionality in the face of the "absolute irresponsibility" of the Catalan government.
She called on Puigdemont to drop the "farce" of the independence campaign, saying Spain had long since emerged from the authoritarian shadow of the Franco dictatorship.
"I don't know what world Puigdemont lives in, but Spanish democracy does not work like this," said Sáenz de Santamaría. "We have been free from a dictatorship for a long time and of a man who told us his word in the law."
By late on Sunday afternoon, the Spanish interior ministry said police had closed 79 of the 2,315 polling stations set up for the referendum. Earlier in the day, the Catalan government had reported that, despite the police's efforts, voting was taking place in 96% of polling stations.
Jesús López Rodríguez, a 51-year-old administrator, had taken his family to vote at the Ramon Llull school in the morning. Like thousands of Catalans, they began queuing from 5am. Three and a half hours later, national police officers arrived in riot gear.
"They told us that the Catalan high court had ordered them to take the ballot boxes and that we needed to disperse," he told the Guardian. "We chanted, 'No! No! No!', and then about 20 police officers charged us. It was short - only about two minutes - but we stayed together."
After about 15 minutes, eight or nine more police vans appeared and officers began cordoning off the surrounding streets and arresting people, López Rodrígue said.
"They dragged them out violently. We stood our ground but they kept dragging people away, kicking them and throwing them to the ground."
More police arrived and jumped over the school fence to enter the building to look for ballot boxes. After using axes to break down the doors of the school, they emerged with the boxes.
López Rodríguez said that at about 10.25am, police began shooting rubber bullets - "at least 30 or 40".
He fled the shots with his wife and children, returning to their flat opposite the school. "I feel really angry about it," he said, "but I also hope people in Europe and around the world will see what's happening in Catalonia."
Similar scenes were reported elsewhere. Riot police smashed the glass doors of the sports centre near Girona where Puigdemont had been due to vote. Despite forcing their way in, they failed to stop the Catalan president voting. Pictures showed him casting his ballot in nearby Cornella del Terri.
The day started peacefully and hopefully in polling stations across the region. Hundreds of people started queuing outside the Cervantes primary school in central Barcelona from well before dawn.
"I'm here to fight for our rights and our language and for our right to live better and to have a future," said Mireia Estape, who lives close to the school. One man in the queue, who did not wish to be named, said he had come because "Catalans need to vote; they're robbing us in Spain".
Another would-be voter said simply: "I don't want to live in a fascist country."
Many Catalans saw their wishes fulfilled in polling stations as officers from the regional force, the Mossos d'Esquadra, hung back.
Joaquín Pons, 89, was delighted to have cast his ballot, as he had done in the symbolic referendum three years ago.
"Last time it was cardboard ballot boxes," he said. "This time they were real. It was very emotional." Pons said he felt Catalans had had little choice but to proceed unilaterally.
"It would have been nice if we could all have stayed together in Spain but the Madrid government has made it impossible. It's sad but that's the way it is."
News and images of the police operation travelled quickly through the crowds in Barcelona and elsewhere, adding to the uneasy atmosphere that has intensified since police arrested 14 Catalan officials and seized millions of ballot papers last week.
On Sunday afternoon, FC Barcelona announced that its Spanish league game against Las Palmas would be played without fans at the city's Nou Camp stadium. In a statement, the club condemned the attempts to prevent Catalans "exercising their democratic rights to free expression" and said the professional football league had refused to postpone the game.
Sunday's violence came less than 24 hours after the Spanish government had appeared confident that enough had been done to thwart the vote.
On Saturday, Millo said police had sealed off 1,300 of the region's 2,315 polling stations, while Guardia Civil officers acting on a judge's orders had searched the headquarters of the Catalan technology and communications centre, disabling the software connecting polling stations and shutting down online voting applications.
"These last-minute operations have allowed us to very definitively break up any possibility of the Catalan government delivering what it promised: a binding, effective referendum with legal guarantees," he said.
[Source: By Sam Jones and Stephen Burgen, The Guardian, London, 01Oct17]
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