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Spain Moves To Strip Catalonia's Regional Autonomy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An important deadline in Spain has just passed. Catalonia's separatist leader had until this morning to drop his independence bid or face punishment from the central government. He didn't, and so that central government says it is moving forward with plans to suspend the autonomy of its northeast region. Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Here's the ultimatum Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had given repeatedly to the Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MARIANO RAJOY: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "Act with sanity and balance. It's not difficult," Rajoy told Parliament yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAJOY: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "Did you declare independence or not?" Rajoy asked Puigdemont. He gave the Catalan leader a deadline of this morning to rectify if he has. Otherwise, he said, the Spanish central government would suspend Catalonia's regional autonomy. As the deadline expired, dozens of TV cameras crowded around Puigdemont's office. But Puigdemont did not appear.

Instead, he issued a letter to Rajoy in which he says he has not declared independence but says the Catalan regional Parliament may still vote to do so if Spain does not open dialogue. Since Spain's economic crisis, Catalan separatism has been growing. Many Catalans resent their taxes subsidizing poorer parts of Spain. Their leaders held an independence referendum October 1, but Madrid said it was illegal and sent police to disrupt voting.

Now Catalan separatists want to open talks about a possible transition to independence, but the central government has refused. Moments after receiving Puigdemont's letter, Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo announced an emergency Cabinet meeting for this Saturday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INIGO MENDEZ DE VIGO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "We will continue with our plan to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution," he said, "to restore legality in Catalonia." It'll still require approval from the Spanish Senate, but it means Spain is moving ahead with plans to fire Catalan regional politicians and take over the local police force. Spain says it's necessary to keep the country united, but it's likely to fuel even more anger in Catalonia.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "OUTLIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.