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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Spanish police storm polling station in Catalonia independence vote

Spanish police cracked down on polling stations as voting began in Catalonia’s banned referendum on independence.

Footage and images on social media showed the authorities pushing, shoving and kicking people, some of whom were bloodied. One image showed an elderly woman being dragged by two police officers, and another showed a man being escorted by police with his shirt ripped and soaked in blood.

Catalan television showed riot police arriving to one polling station in downtown Barcelona at around 8.45am local time, 15 minutes before polling opened. They ordered voters to leave, as crowds shouted: “Out the way, we will vote.”

Police blocked access to the public school building, where the polling was taking place, and removed the ballot boxes.

Enric Millo, the Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia, said in a televised statement that the referendum has been “dismantled”.

“The National Police and the Civil Guard had to act. The Catalan police have put their political criteria ahead of the professional criteria,” he said in a televised statement. “We had to do what we didn’t want to.”

Police burst into a polling station, in a town in Girona province, minutes before Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was due to vote there, reported Reuters.

They shattered glass panels to force open the door as voters, fists in the air, sang the Catalan anthem.

The referendum, which was declared illegal by Spain's central government, has raised fears of street violence as a test of will between Madrid and Barcelona plays out.

The Catalan government had scheduled voting to open at 9am at around 2,300 designated stations, but Madrid said on Saturday it had shut more than half of them.

Voting started at some sites in the region of 7.5 million people, which has its own language and culture and is an industrial hub with an economy larger than that of Portugal.

Leader Puigdemont changed plans and voted at a different station after the police action, the regional government said.

People had occupied some stations with the aim of preventing police from locking them down. Organisers smuggled in ballot boxes before dawn and urged voters to use passive resistance against police.

In a school used in a voting station in Barcelona, police in riot gear carried out ballot boxes while would-be voters chanted "out with the occupying forces!" and "we will vote!".

The Catalan government said voters could print out ballot papers at home and lodge them at any polling station not closed down by police.