October 22, 2019 / 11:28 AM / 20 days ago

Catalan leader urges Spain to start talks on independence referendum

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Catalonia’s regional government leader called on Madrid on Tuesday to open talks on self-determination for the restive Spanish region after days of at-times violent protests over jail sentences for nine separatist leaders.

Pro-independence activists light their mobiles during a protest outside the Spanish government delegation offices in Barcelona, Spain October 21, 2019. REUTERS/Albert Gea

“Let’s talk about everything, seriously, one-on-one negotiations,” Quim Torra told Reuters in an interview at the regional government palace in Barcelona, referring to Spanish acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez as his counterpart.

“Obviously the government of Catalonia will go to this negotiation with our proposal over the table that is a referendum agreed between Spain and Catalonia and with the international community behind it,” the secessionist leader said.

Spain’s main parties have consistently rejected calls for an independence referendum and Sanchez spurned Torra during a quick visit to Catalonia on Monday, accusing him of failing in his duty to restore order and condemn protest violence.

The wealthy northeastern region was rocked by nine consecutive nights of protests after nine Catalan separatist leaders on Oct. 14 were convicted to long jail terms over sedition for leading a failed 2017 bid for independence that included holding a banned referendum.

The atmosphere has calmed down since Sunday, however.

The unrest has been a challenge for Sanchez, who faces a repeat parliamentary election next month.

Torra said the secessionist movement aimed to get over 50% of the region’s vote in the Spanish election after the mass protests, which he said would legitimize its cause and strengthen its push for independence.

Asked about the possibility of a new plebiscite being held without Spain’s consent, Torra said he was seeking a wide agreement among Catalan parties on a road map towards the region’s independence, so no options were ruled out.

What he ruled out again was to call for snap elections in the region.

At a news conference earlier, Torra urged Sanchez “to initiate a dialogue without conditions” despite the premier’s refusal to meet him or pick up his calls in the past four days.

Speaking to Reuters, Torra rejected any blame for the riots, saying he supported peaceful protests and said Sanchez was “irresponsible” in refusing to talk.

He added that he supported Democratic Tsunami, a secretive Catalan group that promoted a massive protest at Barcelona airport eight days ago, after the court’s verdict was announced, which caused dozens of flight cancellations and led a Spanish judge to order the closure of its websites.

Reiterating his stance that he condemns “all violence,” Torra called for a Catalan parliamentary commission to look in to the police response to the riots to determine responsibility.

On Tuesday night a few hundred pro-independence protesters rallied in Barcelona’s Plaza Espana (Spain Square), where they poured washing-up liquid in the main fountain. The wind made the bubbles fly, resembling snowflakes over the Catalan sky.

The use of the detergent is a tongue-in-cheek reference to remarks by a senior Spanish official, who said Catalan separatists had weaponized detergent to fight the police during the 2017 referendum.

“I think the solution would be to sit and have a dialogue. Unfortunately I think that will not happen,” said Xavier Escuer, a 54 year-old system analyst, at the pro-independence rally.

“I think that the Spanish government does not want to talk, has never talked and will not do so now. It just thinks of repressing and hitting,” he added.

Reporting by Joan Faus and Luis Felipe Fernandez in Barcelona and Isla Binnie in Madrid; Writing by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Matthew Lewis

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