BARCELONA (Reuters) - Wearing face masks, thousands of Catalans on Friday staged dozens of small protests calling for the region’s independence from Spain despite warnings from health officials to avoid gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All rallies respected social distancing and were peaceful except an unauthorized march in the evening in central Barcelona in which a few hundred separatist protesters, some with torches, burned a mannequin with Spain’s King Felipe’s face and boxes with the logos of Spanish corporations and public institutions.
In the morning, unidentified people had set fires at several points of Catalonia’s rail network, forcing train cancellations before traffic was resumed four hours later.
In Catalonia, Sept. 11 marks “La Diada”, the anniversary of the fall of Barcelona to Spanish forces in 1714, and has been marked in recent years by major separatist rallies as the pro-independence drive has dominated Spanish politics.
Close to 60,000 people attended static protests across the region, according to grassroots organizer Assemblea Nacional Catalana.
“We have held Europe’s largest COVID-adapted protest,” said chairwoman Elisenda Paluzie, referring to the use of masks, safe distancing and pre-registering of participants.
“I can understand that some people could be afraid but organising a protest is compatible with the pandemic,” said 25-year-old web programmer Marc Purgimon at one of Assemblea’s Barcelona rallies. “It’s important to keep protesting against the repression that Catalonia suffers and for independence.”
There were entry controls to the rally and participants had to stand at marked spots. Many wore shirts with this year’s protest motto “The duty to build a better future” and waved separatist flags.
Spain has recorded more than 560,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, more than any other western European nation.
Manel Capdevila, 59, said he wanted to show the rest of Spain that the independence movement had not weakened despite the health crisis and divisions between parties: “We need to persist and say we want to decide our future and this will not stop.”
The region’s public health secretary and the head of a doctors’ association had discouraged such gatherings, and the regional separatist government did not attend the protests.
Catalan government spokeswoman Meritxell Budo urged Madrid to agree to a referendum on independence and called for an amnesty for nine separatist leaders jailed for their role in a failed 2017 independence bid and for others who fled Spain then.
The government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has ruled out any amnesty or referendum but has backed talks with Barcelona.
“We will keep working to achieve reconciliation in Catalonia from a dialogue within the constitution,” Sanchez tweeted.
Opinion polls show people in Catalonia are split on the issue of independence. The latest survey shows more respondents in favour of their region remaining part of Spain.
Separately, Catalan regional head of government Quim Torra on Friday offered to take in refugees from Greece’s biggest migrant camp destroyed by fire on Wednesday.
“The government of Catalonia makes itself available to receive people seeking an opportunity to flee war, hunger and fear,” Torra tweeted.
The Spanish government makes the final decision on admitting refugees.
Reporting by Joan Faus; Additional reporting by Nathan Allen, Graham Keeley and Nacho Doce; Editing by Andrei Khalip/Janet Lawrence and Grant McCool
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