Spanish police have arrested at least 12 people in raids on Catalan government offices, as national authorities intensified a crackdown on the region’s preparations for a secession vote which Spain said is illegal.
It is the first time Spanish authorities have detained Catalan officials since the campaign to hold a vote on Catalonia’s independence began to gather momentum in 2011.
The move marks the latest spike in tensions between national authorities based in Madrid and pro-independence Catalans over a planned October 1 referendum.
Several thousand Catalans gathered to protest against the raids outside government offices in the region’s capital, Barcelona.
Some demonstrators sat down in the street to block police cars, while others scuffled with officers. Protests also occurred in other Catalan towns. There were no reports of arrests or injuries.
Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, blasted the police operations as “unlawful” and accused the national government of adopting a “totalitarian attitude”.
Police acting on a judge’s orders searched 42 premises, including six regional government offices, officials’ private offices and homes, as well as three companies in Barcelona, the city’s superior court said in a statement.
It said some 20 people are under investigation for alleged disobedience, abuse of power and embezzlement related to the referendum.
Police and judicial authorities declined to give further details of the operation, which aimed to halt preparations for the vote, saying a judge has placed a secrecy order on it.
Police confiscated nearly 10 million ballot papers, the interior ministry said. Polling station signs and documents for electoral officers were also seized during a raid on a warehouse in a small town outside Barcelona.
The Catalan regional government confirmed Josep Maria Jove, secretary general of economic affairs, and Lluis Salvado, secretary of taxation, were among those arrested. Jove is second in command to the region’s vice president and economy chief, Oriol Junqueras.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy said his conservative government is determined to prevent the ballot.
He said the Catalan government is going against the Spanish Constitution by holding the vote and that, “logically, the state has to act”.
Mr Rajoy said: “No democratic state in the world would accept what these people are proposing.”
His stance has the backing of most Spanish opposition parties.
The Constitutional Court has ordered the vote to be suspended as it assesses its legality, but Catalan officials said they will press ahead regardless.
“Today the government of Rajoy has crossed a very dangerous red line,” said Jordi Sanchez, president of Catalan National Assembly, a civic group leading the independence drive.
“We will do all we can for democracy and freedom to prevail.”
The Barcelona football team waded into the controversy, saying it “condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of (democratic) rights” and vowed to “continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people, and will do so in a civil, peaceful, and exemplary way”.
The arrests risk stoking public anger in Catalonia, where pro-independence passions can run high.
Spain’s interior ministry cancelled time off and scheduled leave for Civil Guard and National Police officers who are being deployed to ensure the ballot does not take place.
Meanwhile, Spain’s finance ministry said it has imposed further controls over the Catalan government’s finances to ensure no public money is used for the referendum.
Finance minister Cristobal Montoro signed an order late on Tuesday that limits new credit and requires central authorities’ supervision for every payment of non-essential services in Catalonia, the ministry said.
The measure means that virtually all the Catalan public spending will be in the hands of Madrid.
The finance ministry took over the direct payment of basic services such as education, health and civil servants’ salaries last week.
Mr Puigdemont claimed the central government has effectively ended Catalonia’s self-rule. The region, like others in Spain, has broad self-governing powers.
Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain’s 1.1-trillion-euro economy. The region’s 7.5 million inhabitants overwhelmingly favour a referendum, but are estimated to be evenly divided over the question of independence.