Travel chaos as Catalan strike demands leaders’ release

BARCELONA – Protesters blocked roads and train lines across Catalonia on Wednesday, provoking commuter anger in a strike called by a pro-independence union after separatist leaders were detained in Madrid over their divisive secession drive.

More than 50 routes including major motorways were cut, causing widespread disruption in the region, which has been plunged into uncertainty over its now-deposed government’s bid to split from Spain.

The crisis has shaken a European Union still getting to grips with Britain’s decision to leave the bloc, and raised fears of social unrest and prolonged disruption to the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy. Huge banners were draped across at least one tunnel in Barcelona, blocking entry, and activists also cut off main roads linking the region of 7.5 million people to France and to the Spanish capital. “Warning. Big problems at the heart of the commuter train system due to an invasion of people and objects on the tracks,” Rodalies de Catalunya, which manages commuter trains in the region, said on Twitter.

At one protest in Sitges, southwest of Barcelona, demonstrators set up banners, deckchairs and a table-top game of chess as long queues of motorists formed.

– ‘Coup d’etat’ –

But the walkout appeared to be less followed than a general strike on October 3 that followed the banned referendum, in which 90 percent voted to break from Spain.

During that strike most shops and tourist attractions closed down in Barcelona while most remained open on Wednesday, though activists were blocking access to the Sagrada Familia basilica.

Lawmakers in Catalonia, a region with its own language and culture accounting for a fifth of Spain’s GDP, declared independence from Spain on October 27.

Madrid responded by revoking the region’s autonomy, dismissing its government and parliament, and organising new regional elections for next month as it tries to stem the fallout from Spain’s deepest political crisis in decades.

A judge in Madrid last week ordered eight separatist politicians to be remanded in custody for their secession drive.

Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who is in Belgium facing extradition to Spain, on Tuesday criticised the EU for backing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in the crisis.

“Will you accept the result of the Catalan referendum or will you continue to help Mr Rajoy in his coup d’etat?” Puigdemont said in Brussels.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Wednesday denied that his government was “in crisis” over Puigdemont’s presence, which risks reigniting communal tensions in Belgium.

“There is a political crisis in Spain and not in Belgium,” Michel told parliament, after Flemish separatist members of his coalition government spoke out in support of Puigdemont.

More than 2,000 businesses have moved their headquarters out of the region as the turmoil drags on.

Wednesday’s walkout was called by the pro-independence CSC union but lacked support from Spain’s two largest unions.

Waving pro-independence banners and Catalan flags, demonstrators called for the release of sacked government officials and separatist lobbyists.

Local police, who now take their orders directly from Madrid after Spain suspended Catalan autonomy, removed some protesters who sat in rows across roads and blocked a main Barcelona bus station.

Authorities said high-speed train links with France were disrupted, with a Barcelona-Lyon train forced to turn back, but commuter trains were running as normal by midday (1100 GMT).

A central government source in Barcelona said participation in the strike was “negligible”.

“There are only transport problems making it difficult for people to get to work,” the source told AFP.

Reacting to the closure of the main AP-7 motorway linking Catalonia with France, one Twitter user said “30 idiots are imposing their craziness on all the others, this is VIOLENCE, it’s an IMPOSITION, it’s ILLEGAL, and the passivity of the (police) is OUTRAGEOUS.”

New elections will be held in Catalonia on December 21 and Rajoy called on Wednesday for “massive participation” in the vote.

Puigdemont has called for a united separatist front to participate, but a former government ally, the leftwing ERC party, on Tuesday ruled out running on the same ticket.


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