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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Protesters flood Barcelona demanding release of pro-independence leaders

Police say 750,000 people attended the march on Saturday

Catalonia's independence supporters march during a demonstration on November 11, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Getty Images / Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno
Catalonia's independence supporters march during a demonstration on November 11, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Getty Images / Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

Hundreds of thousands of Catalans marched on Saturday to demand the release of regional officials jailed for their push for independence from Spain, which has left the country mired in a political crisis.

The more than two-hour long protest in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, came a day after the region's parliament speaker - one of dozens of lawmakers sacked by Madrid last month - was released from jail after posting €150,000 bail.

The demonstrators gathered on an avenue next to the regional parliament building, waving Catalan independence flags and chanting "Freedom!" while some held up banners announcing: "SOS Democracy".

Children in riding helmets climbed castells - the region's traditional human towers - as others held placards bearing caricatures of some jailed lawmakers.

Barcelona municipal police put turnout for the march at about 750,000 people as crowds stretched for more than 15 blocks along the boulevard.

The Catalonia crisis has caused concern in the European Union as the bloc deals with Brexit and uncertainty over the fate of the region's 7.5 million people. More than 2,400 businesses have moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia.

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Read more:

Barcelona braces for protests over jailed Catalan leaders

Puigdemont attacks ‘colossal outrage’ of Spanish government crackdown on Catalonia

Puigdemont released on bail by Belgian judge

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Since lawmakers in Catalonia - a wealthy region with its own language and distinct culture - declared independence on October 27 following a referendum banned by a Spanish court, pro-independence officials have been under huge pressure from Madrid.

The central government has dismissed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, his government and the parliament, suspended the region's autonomy and called for elections there on December 21.

Barcelona's mayor criticised the actions of Mr Puigdemont's government.

"They've provoked tensions and carried out a unilateral independence declaration which the majority do not want," Ada Colau told a meeting of her left-leaning communitarian party, Barcelona en Comu, which governs the city as a minority administration.

"They've tricked the population for their own interests."

Eight members of the axed Catalan cabinet are detained on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

A further six fired officials, including parliament speaker Carme Forcadell, were granted bail this week on similar charges by Spain's supreme court.

Mr Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium awaiting a hearing on possible extradition to Spain after Madrid issued an EU-wide warrant.

Saturday's protest was seen as a test of how the independence movement's support has fared since the Catalan government declared independence.

An opinion poll this week showed that pro-independence parties would win the largest share of the vote, although a majority was not assured and question marks remain over Mr Puigdemont's leadership of the separatist cause.

"Look at all the people here," said 63-year-old Pep Morales. "The independence movement is still going strong."

Mr Puigdemont and four ex-ministers say they are in Brussels because they cannot be guaranteed a fair trial at home.

"Although some of us are far away from you and others are in prison, we have an opportunity to express loudly and clearly that we want freedom and democracy," Mr Puigdemont told Catalan television.

The protest was organised by two pro-independence lobby groups, ANC and Omnium, whose two leaders are also detained.

"We don't know what's going to happen but we know what we want: the release of political prisoners," said demonstrator Maria Angels Quintana.

Mr Puigdemont said he travelled to Brussels after declaring independence in order to raise international awareness on the treatment of separatists in Spain.

But the European Union, nervous that Catalan independence could stir up separatist tensions in several member states, has backed the government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy over the crisis.

Some participants at the rally betrayed their frustration at the lack of support from Brussels for their cause, holding banners printed in English asking "Europe, where are you?"

Mr Rajoy will be in Barcelona on Sunday - his first visit to Catalonia since the independence crisis erupted - to show support for his Popular Party candidates in next month's vote.