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Catalan police call for neutrality as Spain exerts control

Source: Reuters - Sat 28th Oct 2017
Catalan police call for neutrality as Spain exerts control

Catalonia’s police force told its officers to remain neutral in the struggle over the region’s fight for independence from Spain, a step towards averting possible conflict as the Madrid government starts to impose control on Saturday.

Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy dismissed the Catalan government, took over the administration and called a new election after the regional parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence on Friday, aggravating Spain’s worst political crisis in four decades.

The independence declaration, though dramatic, was almost immediately rendered futile by Rajoy’s actions. Other European countries and the United States also rejected it and expressed support for Spain’s prime minister.

But emotions are running high in Catalonia and the next few days will be tricky for Madrid as it embarks on enforcing direct rule on the ground. Rajoy designated Deputy PM Soraya Saenz Santamaria to oversee the process.

The regional parliament’s vote to declare Catalonia a separate nation, which was boycotted by three national opposition parties, capped a battle of wills between the independence movement, headed by the now-sacked Carles Puigdemont and the Madrid government.

The separatists say a referendum held on Oct. 1 gave them a mandate for independence. However, less than half of eligible voters turned out for the ballot, which Madrid declared illegal and tried to stop.

Opinion polls regularly show that more than half of the 5.3 million people who are eligible to vote in the wealthy northeastern region do not want to break from Spain.

In an effort to defuse tensions, the regional police force urged its officers to behave in a neutral manner and not to take sides, an internal note seen by Reuters showed.

There have been doubts over how the Mossos d‘Esquadra, as the Catalan police are called, would respond if ordered to evict Puigdemont and his government.

The force is riven by distrust between those for and against independence and is estranged from Spain’s national police forces, Mossos and national police officers have told Reuters. Some Catalan police officers stood between national police and those trying to vote during the banned referendum.

“Given that there is it is likely to be an increase in gatherings and rallies of citizens in all the territory and that there are people of different thoughts, we must remember that it is our responsibility to guarantee the security of all and help these to take place without incident,” said the memo, which had no name attached to it.

The Madrid government also sacked the force’s chief of Catalonia’s regional police force, Josep Lluis Trapero, the official gazette announced on Saturday.

Trapero became a hero to the secessionists after his force took a much softer stance than national police in enforcing the government ban on the independence referendum.

Spain’s High Court on Oct. 16 banned Trapero from leaving the country and seized his passport as part of an investigation for alleged sedition, although it did not order his arrest.

Prosecutors say he failed to give orders to rescue national police trapped inside a Barcelona building during pro-independence protests last month.

In Barcelona, thousands of independence supporters packed the Sant Jaume Square in front of the regional headquarters on Friday night, waving Catalan flags and singing traditional songs in the Catalan language as bands played. There was no trouble.

But some analysts say that street confrontation is possible as the Madrid government enforces control.

The main secessionist group, the Catalan National Assembly, on Friday called on civil servants not to follow orders from the Spanish government, but it stressed they should mount “peaceful resistance”.

A pro-independence trade union, the CSC, called a strike from Monday through to Nov. 9. The government said it would ensure a minimum service.

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