Barcelona, Spain — Highways were blocked, schools closed and much business halted across Catalonia Tuesday as tens of thousands of workers and students joined strikes and took to the streets to protest the use of force by police that left hundreds injured during a disputed referendum on the region’s secession.
In the regional capital, Barcelona, where bus and subway services were affected, disoriented tourists scrambled to find open cafeterias to avoid the protests.
There were moments of tension when a handful of picketers forced the closure of shops that had remained open in the city’s famed Las Ramblas boulevard, but elsewhere the demonstrations were largely peaceful.
Separatist groups and unions had initially called on strikes to be held on Tuesday in support for Catalan leaders pushing ahead with a declaration of independence from Spain. But many non-separatists were also drawn to the streets following a crackdown on a referendum vote on Sunday.
In Barcelona’s Catalonia and University squares, a sea of demonstrators waved flags, most of them “esteladas” embraced by those wishing secession, but also plenty of Spanish national flags.
People are angry, very angry,” said Josep Llavina, a 53-year-old self-employed worker who had traveled to Barcelona from a nearby town to participate in the protest outside the regional offices of Spain’s National Police.
The building became a focal point for protesters, gathering thousands at midday who shouted that the police were an “occupying force” and urged Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resign.
“They brought violence with them,” Llavina said. They have beaten people who were holding their hands up. How can we not be outraged?”
Catalan officials say that 90 percent of the 2.3 million people who voted Sunday were in favor of independence. But fewer than half of those eligible to vote turned out. The vote was boycotted by most of Spain’s national parties on grounds it was illegal and lacked basic guarantees, such as transparency, a proper census or an independent electoral governing body.
The central government in Madrid is blaming Catalan separatist politicians and grassroots groups for the violence, saying they “plotted to break the law” and drew citizens to an unlawful vote.
“Nothing of this would have happened if the (Catalan) government hadn’t declared itself in rebellion, breaking the orders of the courts and lying and tricking people,” said Spain’s top official in Catalonia, Enric Millo, on Tuesday.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has declared the vote valid and has announced it will present the final results this week to Catalonia’s regional parliament, which would trigger the process of breaking away from Spain.
The Spanish national government has said it will respond with “all necessary measures” to counter such a move, and is holding talks with national opposition leaders to find multi-partisan consensus on the response.
The general strike in Catalonia called by pro-independence groups was not fully backed by Spain’s two main unions, the UGT and CCOO groups, who invited workers to decide individually whether to halt work or not to protest police violence, but not in support of secession.
“I disagree with the strike. In fact, at work nobody told me anything about a strike. So I decided to come,” said Jose Bolivar, 54, a town hall employee.
Office worker Antonia Cuello, 37, was in two minds about the industrial action.
“On one side it is a hassle to try to get to work in the midst of a strike,” she said. “We are suffering this because a few decided to behave in an improper way. On the other hand, I understand the circumstances surrounding the strike.”
Port workers also held a demonstration outside the regional headquarters of Spain’s ruling Popular Party, while firefighters planned a rally outside the Interior Ministry’s regional office in Barcelona. Protests were also to be staged outside schools that were used as polling stations where police acted with force to try to prevent Sunday’s poll being held.
More than 890 civilians were treated for injuries, most of them not serious, following clashes during Sunday’s referendum, according to Catalan regional health authorities. Police using batons, and some firing rubber bullets, cleared protesters hoping to vote. Spain’s Interior Ministry says 431 National Police and Civil Guard agents were injured, too.
The police action prompted criticism worldwide although the European Union and most governments backed Spain’s stance in what is its most serious political crisis in decades.
Nigel Farage, one of the leaders in Britain’s vote to leave the EU, condemned the bloc’s failure to clearly condemn the police violence.
“It is quite extraordinary to realize that this Union is prepared to turn a blind eye,” Farage told EU lawmakers.
Cyprus said Spain’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity needed to be respected, arguing that the referendum on Catalonia’s independence was carried outin violation of the Spanish constitution.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu also said respect for Spain’s territorial integrity was the main principle, adding that it was important that both sides abide by Spain’s laws and avoid violence.
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