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Violence Breaks Out During Catalan Independence Referendum

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Spain's Catalonia region saw a weekend of violence. Separatists there held an independence referendum Sunday. Spain considers that vote illegal. Hundreds of people were injured when the national police tried to stop it. Lauren Frayer was at a polling station in Barcelona and she sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The chants of we will vote began before dawn Sunday at this school-turned-polling station. Rose Papel Sanchez, who is 81, dropped her walking stick and linked arms with teenagers preparing to block police from entering.

ROSE PAPEL SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "We're defending democracy," she said, beaming.

She was born the year the Spanish Civil War began and lived through the repression of Catalans under dictator Francisco Franco. But by the end of the day, she said she felt like she was reliving history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Spanish police smashed their way into polling stations, beating voters. They fired rubber bullets and tear gas to try to quash a referendum the central government and courts had ruled illegal. About a thousand people were hurt, including dozens of police. Many Catalan still managed to cast ballots, 90 percent of them in favor of independence, though half of those eligible did not vote. Many Catalans opposed to independence boycotted the referendum. Still, Madrid's measures to halt separatism here appear to have fueled it, says voter Pep Planas.

PEP PLANAS: They made people change their minds and say, I want to vote. Now, I think that some people did this switch.

FRAYER: That's not what Spain had in mind when it sent police to halt the referendum. But it was a sort of damned if you do, damned if you don't situation for Madrid, says Federico Santi, a political analyst at the London-based Eurasia Group.

FEDERICO SANTI: First of all, I think the central government overestimated its ability to actually stop the vote from happening. But eventually they would have to intervene sooner or later. Better to do it sooner than do it later after the referendum has taken place, which I think would have resulted in an even stronger political mandate for the regional government.

FRAYER: The Catalan president says he's already got that mandate and wants Europe to mediate a transition to Catalan's statehood. But both Madrid and Brussels nixed that today. Margaritis Schinas is a spokesman for the European Commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARGARITIS SCHINAS: We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish Constitution.

FRAYER: In other words, Catalan separatism remains an internal Spanish matter. That's disappointing to Catalans, who had hoped that Sunday's vote and violence would lead to international sympathy, if not independence. They'll hold a general strike across Catalonia tomorrow. The Catalan president still vows to declare independence within days, though no country is expected to recognize that. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE GIBBS AND MADLIB SONG, "BROKEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.