BARCELONA (Reuters) - The first of hundreds of Catalan mayors summoned to answer questions on why they have backed a banned Oct. 1 referendum on independence from Spain appeared before the state prosecutor on Tuesday amid cheers and chants from supporters.
The first three mayors to declare exercised their right to remain silent, the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) said.
Years of separatist feeling in the industrial northeastern region will come to a head in less than two weeks as the fiercely pro-independence regional government calls a referendum on splitting from Spain.
Madrid has declared the referendum illegal and the Constitutional Court has suspended the vote that was approved by the regional government earlier this month.
On Tuesday, police continued their search for ballot boxes, voting papers and campaign leaflets, raiding the offices of Spain’s biggest private delivery company Unipost in several Catalan cities and clashing with protesters.
So far, 745 of 948 municipal leaders have said they will provide venues for the referendum.
“Voting is not a crime,” said Marc Solsona, mayor of the town of Mollerussa, one of nearly 750 mayors facing charges of civil disobedience, abuse of office and misuse of public funds, as he left the state prosecutor’s office in Barcelona.
“I‘m just the mayor and I have to serve my people. I am committed to the people being able to vote on Oct. 1 in accordance with the law passed by the Catalan parliament and what happens to me is not important,” he said.
Solsona smiled, kissed and gripped hands with dozens of clapping supporters gathered outside the state prosecutor’s office as he entered to chants of ‘You are not alone’.
“We consider ourselves privileged to have a mayor who represents the townspeople above any other interests - political or financial,” said 63-year-old pensioner Angel Tena, who had traveled to Barcelona to support the mayor.
Spain’s Civil Guard, a national police force, on Tuesday seized over 45,000 envelopes packed in cardboard boxes that the Catalan government was ready to send to notify people around the region about the referendum, the Spanish interior ministry said.
While police raided the Unipost offices in Terrassa, dozens of people gathered outside chanting ‘Out with the occupying forces,’ handing out voting papers, flying Catalan flags, and laying carnations on police cars.
Later on protesters scuffled with Catalan police called in to move protesters preventing the Civil Guard from leaving the premises, according to Reuters footage. The police hit several protesters outside the offices with truncheons.
Unipost confirmed the raid without giving further details.
Although polls show less than half of Catalonia’s 5.5 million voters want self-rule, most in the wealthy northeastern region want the chance to vote on the issue.
Additional reporting by Sonya Dowsett and Inmaculada Sanz in Madrid; Writing by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jonathan Oatis