Spanish police clash with Catalan voters, smash way into polling center
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Spanish police clash with Catalan voters, smash way into polling center

Scuffles erupt between police and people wanting to cast ballots in banned referendum on region’s secession

Firemen try to hold a group of people outside a polling station in San Julia de Ramis, on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE)
Firemen try to hold a group of people outside a polling station in San Julia de Ramis, on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE)

CATALONIA, Spain (AFP) — Spanish police in riot gear seized ballot boxes and surrounded activist-held polling stations in Catalonia Sunday as thousands flooded the streets to vote in an independence referendum banned by Madrid.

As the vote officially opened, scenes of chaos erupted as police began moving in to prevent people from casting their ballots, forcing their way into one sports center in the town of Girona where the region’s separatist leader was due to vote.

There were several reports of injuries as police fired rubber bullets at protesters in Barcelona.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont did subsequently vote.

The regional government tweeted photos of him casting his ballot in Cornella del Terri in the province of Girona, a different place from where he was initially supposed to vote.

The drama unfolded after a night of tension in which thousands of people, both nervous and excited, had gathered outside polling stations before dawn to vote, with police under orders to prevent the ballot from happening.

“Votarem, votarem!” — Catalan for “We will vote!” — chanted the crowds, many with their hands in the air.

As the rain poured down in Barcelona, students and activists who had spent the night in schools designated as polling stations gathered outside with locals to “defend” the vote from police as cars drove by honking their horns in support.

People raise their fists outside a polling station in Barcelona, on October 1, 2017, as they wait to vote on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU)

Catalan television broadcast footage of crowds in towns and villages all over region, whose separatist government said early Sunday the referendum would go ahead as planned.

Although the region is divided over independence, most people want to vote on the matter in legal, binding plebiscite.

“The government today is in a position to affirm that we can celebrate the referendum of self-determination — not as we wanted, but (it will have democratic) guarantees,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told a news conference.

But the interior ministry said it had started seizing ballot boxes, adding police were “continuing to deploy in Catalonia” to stop the referendum.

A man offers a carnation to a Spanish Guardia Civil guard in Sant Julia de Ramis, on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE)

Spain’s central government is staunchly against the vote, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, and has vowed to stop it from taking place.

On orders of judges and prosecutors, police have seized ballot papers, detained key organizers and shut down websites promoting the vote.

But on the streets early Sunday, voters were determined to be heard.

“Today is a historic day for us, it’s terrific,” Maria Rosa Pi-Sunyer Arguimbau, 55, said after a man carrying a ballot box jumped out of a car and ran to the door, depositing it inside as two police officers looked on across the street.

A man prepares to casts his ballot in a polling station in Barcelona, on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO)

The ballot boxes have been at the center of attention during the referendum crisis, with many wondering exactly where they were hidden and how they would be delivered to polling stations, as police were ordered to seize any material related to the referendum.

But as people crowded in front of polling stations, they started to arrive, carried in by individuals. It was as yet unclear where they came from.

The planned referendum has sown divisions among Catalans and stoked passions further afield in Spain.

Whatever happens, Sunday’s referendum result will not be recognized by Madrid, and almost certainly not by the international community.

But separatist leaders are banking on a high turnout to give legitimacy to their vote.

People raise their hands in front of Spanish police officers at the entrance to a polling station in Barcelona on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA)

Spain’s interior ministry said Saturday police had closed most of the 2,315 polling stations across Catalonia.

But dozens were occupied by teachers, parents, students and activists determined to let people in anyway.

Some schools designated as polling stations imagined innovative ways to stay open, organizing leisure activities all over the weekend, from kids’ pajama parties to volleyball games.

A regional government source said voting may also take place in other places like health centers and even retirement homes.

Spanish police officers seize ballot-boxes at a polling station in Barcelona on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA)

Farmers and firefighters have also pledged to protect polling stations.

Earlier this week, the Mossos d’Esquadra Catalan police warned about the risk of “disruption of public order” if people were prevented from casting ballots.

Ignacio Sellares, a 56-year-old tax consultant at a polling station in Barcelona said he wasn’t scared.

“Having said that, if police come with weapons and water cannons, I’m getting out of here fast!”

Madrid has sent thousands of extra police officers from other forces to Catalonia to stop the referendum from happening.

On Saturday, Carles Puigdemont called on those going to vote to maintain a “peaceful attitude.”

That same day, thousands took to the streets across the country — including in Barcelona — in favor of national unity.

People protest in front of Spanish police officers after the seizure of ballot-boxes in a polling station in Barcelona on the day of an independence referendum for Catalonia banned by Madrid, October 1, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA)

As well as being critical of Puigdemont, some protesters also faulted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government for limiting its response to the crisis to repeating that the referendum is unconstitutional.

“The state needs to explain the benefits of remaining united, instead of repeating all the time that the referendum is illegal,” said Rafael Castillo, a 59-year-old engineer at a Madrid rally, wearing a scarf with the Spanish flag around his neck.

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