by Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
Police move to block Catalonians from voting in illegal referendum that has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades • Several hurt as police fire rubber bullets
Spanish police break into a polling station in Girona for the
banned independence referendum, Sunday
Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont accused Spanish authorities of using "unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible" violence in a crackdown on a Catalan independence referendum on Sunday.
The batons, rubber bullets and violence used by Spanish police to prevent voting in what Spanish authorities have said was an illegal referendum had shown a "dreadful external image of Spain", he told reporters.
"The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans' desire to vote ... but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today," he said.
Earlier Sunday, Spanish riot police smashed their way into polling stations in Catalonia as they sought to shut down the banned independence referendum, which has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades.
The police burst into a polling station, in a town in Girona province, minutes before Puigdemont was due to vote there. They shattered glass panels to force open the door as voters, fists in the air, sang the Catalan anthem.
Police equipped with riot shields jostled with hundreds of voters outside one station at a school in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, as the crowd chanted, "We are people of peace!"
Riot police outside a Barcelona polling station fired rubber projectiles at protesters. Several people were reported wounded.
The officers fired the projectiles while trying to clear protesters who were trying to impede police cars from leaving after police confiscated ballot boxes from the voting center.
The referendum, declared illegal by Spain's central government, has raised fears of violence as a test of will between Madrid and Barcelona plays out.
The Catalan government had scheduled voting to begin at around 2,300 designated stations at 9 a.m., but Madrid said on Saturday it had shut more than half of them down.
Voters were able to access some sites, however, where organizers had smuggled in ballot boxes before dawn and urged voters to use passive resistance against police.
Catalan leaders vowed to press ahead with the vote despite Madrid's attempts to thwart preparations, including the seizure of ballot papers and boxes.
The Catalan government said voters could print out ballot papers at home and lodge them at any polling station not closed down by police.
"I have got up early because my country needs me," said Eulalia Espinal, a 65-year-old pensioner who along with around 100 others, lined up in the rain outside a polling station at a Barcelona school at around 5 a.m.
"We don't know what's going to happen, but we have to be here," she said.
Organizers had asked voters to turn out before dawn, hoping for large crowds to be the world's first image of voting day.
"This is a great opportunity. I've waited 80 years for this," said 92-year-old Ramon Jordana, a former taxi driver waiting to vote in Sant Pere de Torelló, a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees and a pro-independence bastion.
Jordana, his wrists wrapped in Catalan flags, was among the nearly 150 people who gathered at a local school that had been listed as a polling station, in an effort to block any police from entering. A tractor also stood guard, though no police had yet arrived.
Leading up to the referendum, Spanish police arrested Catalan officials, seized campaign leaflets and occupied the Catalan government's communications hub.
Catalan leaders urged voters to turn out in a peaceful expression of democracy. Numerous families have heeded the call, occupying schools earmarked as voting centers and sleeping there overnight in an attempt to prevent police from sealing them off.
If some voters ultimately succeed in voting, a majority will likely vote in favor of independence given that many unionists are expected to stay home.
"If I can't vote, I want to turn out in the streets and say sincerely that we want to vote," said independence supporter Joan Miró, a 60-year-old school inspector.
Only the Catalan police have been monitoring polling stations so far.
While Puigdemont has said the Catalan government would declare independence within 48 hours of a "yes" vote in the referendum, regional leaders have since acknowledged the vote has been undermined by Madrid's crackdown.
Financial markets have so far reacted cautiously to the situation, though credit rating agency S&P on Friday said that protracted tensions in Catalonia could hurt Spain's economic outlook. The region accounts for about a fifth of the economy.
The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court, and Madrid has the ultimate power under its 1978 charter to suspend the regional government's authority to rule should it declare independence.
The Madrid government, which has sent thousands of police to Catalonia to enforce a court ban on the vote, believes it has done enough to prevent any meaningful referendum from taking place.
Polls indicate a minority of around 40% of Catalans support independence, although a majority supports holding a referendum on the issue. The region of 7.5 million people has an economy larger than that of Portugal.
Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
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