December 20, 2018 / 2:00 PM / 9 months ago

CORRECTED-UPDATE 1-Jailed Catalans urge peaceful protest for rare visit by Spain's PM

(Corrects date of Sanchez-Torra meeting to Thursday from Friday in paragraph 10)

By Paul Day

MADRID, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Nine Catalan separatists jailed over their region’s push for independence called on Thursday for large but peaceful protests to mark a rare visit by Spain’s cabinet.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will chair his weekly cabinet meeting in the Catalan capital Barcelona on Friday, part of efforts to resolve a political conflict that has festered since the northeastern region unilaterally declared independence in October 2017.

That declaration prompted Madrid to take control of the region - which has 7.5 million people and accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s economy - and arrest secessionist leaders.

Spain’s constitution prohibits regions from breaking away and the independence drive, backed by around half of Catalans, has caused the country’s worst political crisis in decades.

Hundreds of national police will be deployed in Barcelona to guard the cabinet meeting amid fears extreme elements of the independence movement could foment violence.

“(Sanchez’s government)... will want to provoke us, they will be angry, they would like us to be violent, and they will not succeed,” the nine prisoners said in a letter released by their political parties.

“Our strength also lies in maintaining, always and everywhere, a civic and peaceful attitude.”

The signatories are all in jail awaiting trial for rebellion and misappropriation of funds.

Four of them - Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Jordi Sanchez and Joaquim Forn - unexpectedly called off a hunger strike on Thursday that they began at the start of December in protest against the legal process.

That announcement is likely to ease tensions before an expected meeting later on Thursday between Sanchez and pro-independence regional leader Quim Torra.

Though no format for the encounter had been agreed by Thursday morning, Madrid has said it would be brief and informal. The Catalan administration views it as an official meeting to discuss political discrepancies and the prisoners.

Friday’s planned demonstrations against Madrid will be the latest of many, some of which have drawn hundreds of thousands.

During last year’s independence vote, Spanish police attempted to shut down impromptu voting stations, provoking international outcry with the use of batons and rubber bullets in melees that injured dozens.

There was no immediate reaction from Madrid to the prisoners’ letter. (Reporting by Paul Day; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and John Stonestreet)

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