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Spaniards take to streets as Catalonia independence tensions rise

By Raquel Castillo and Sam Edwards

MADRID/BARCELONA, Oct 7 (Reuters) Tens of thousands of people gathered in Madrid and Barcelona on Saturday morning as Catalonia prepared to declare independence, many dressed in white and calling for talks to defuse Spain's worst political crisis for decades.

The wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia, with its own language and culture, has long claimed to be distinct from the rest of the country and on Sunday held a referendum on leaving Spain, a vote the constitutional court had banned.

The Catalan authorities say that a majority of those who voted supported a split from Spain. Madrid says secession is illegal under the country's 1978 constitution.

The political stand-off has divided the country, pushed banks and companies to move their headquarters outside Catalonia and shaken market confidence in the Spanish economy, prompting calls from the European Commission for Catalan and Spanish leaders to find a political solution.

In peaceful protests called across 50 Spanish cities, and fully dispersed by early afternoon, thousands gathered dressed in white and carrying banners calling for peace and dialogue between leaders.

In Barcelona, protesters chanted "let's talk" in Catalan, while many carried signs criticising political leaders for not finding a diplomatic solution to the impasse.

"This is producing a social rupture in Catalonia and this has to be resolved through dialogue, never via unilateralism," Jose Manuel Garcia, 61, an economist who attended the protest dressed in white said.

"I'm very worried. This will end badly and everyone will lose (without dialogue)."

While Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has said he is open to mediation, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists he gives up the independence campaign, which grew in strength during a near-six year economic crisis, before discussions can be held.

Meanwhile, in Madrid, parallel to the "Let's talk" march, thousands gathered beneath the enormous Spanish flag in Colon Plaza waving their own flags, singing and chanting "Viva España" and "Viva Catalonia".

"I've come because I feel very Spanish and makes me very sad what's happened," said Rosa Borras, 47, an unemployed secretary who had joined a noisy gathering in central Madrid.

Borras, wearing a "Catalonia, we love you" sticker and surrounded by thousands waving Spanish flags, added: "I wanted to be here for unity, because I also feel very Catalan. My family lives in Catalonia."

EU CONCERN

Rajoy's government mobilised thousands of national police to stop Sunday's vote, leading to clashes with would-be voters as they tried to close polling stations in schools and remove ballot boxes. Nine hundred people were injured on polling day.

The police violence drew widespread condemnation and forced the government to issue an apology on Friday, although tensions continued to rise after reports of plans for the Catalan parliament to vote on a unilateral declaration of independence on Tuesday.

The crisis has also caused disquiet among Spain's European Union partners, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has discussed it with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, an EU official told Reuters.

Concern is growing in EU capitals about the impact of the crisis on the Spanish economy, the fourth largest in the euro zone, and on possible spillovers to other economies.

European finance ministers, gathering in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday for a regular meeting, could discuss the issue, although it is not formally on the agenda, EU officials said.

The support given in public statements by EU leaders to Rajoy is combined with concern expressed in private about how the Spanish government's use of police to prevent Catalans from voting last week in the independence referendum could backfire.

Some EU states are worried that talk of Catalan independence could fuel secessionist feelings in other parts of Europe.

REUTERS PS 1914
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