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Catalan government says 465 injured in clashes with Spanish police

Spain’s central government is staunchly against the region’s independence vote, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

Spain: Independence Referendum Takes Place in Catalonia People protest as police try to control the area in their attempt to cast their ballot today at a polling station. Source: Juan Carlos Lucas via PA Images

Updated 5.15pm

SPANISH RIOT POLICE are firing rubber bullets and forcing their way into activist-held polling stations in Catalonia as thousands flood the streets to vote in an independence referendum banned by Madrid.

At least 91 people were confirmed injured in clashes out of more than 330 who went to hospital, emergency services said, as police cracked down on what the Spanish central government branded a “farce”.

But the Catalan government has claimed that the number of injured could be as high as 465, as videos and images show the extremity of the clashes between voters and law enforcement.

Scuffles broke out as police moved in to seal off polling stations and seize ballot boxes to prevent people from voting across the wealthy northeastern region where more than 5.3 million people have been called upon to have their say on independence from Spain.

In central Barcelona, riot police forced their way inside a school to seize ballot boxes, charging at demonstrators who were sitting on the ground blocking their way, witnesses said.

Witnesses said police in Barcelona also fired rubber bullets, with one demonstrator showing AFP a leg injury he suffered.

Spain’s foreign minister Alfonso Dastis told Sky News that the events of today were “not worthy of being called a referendum”.

Sky News Source: Sky News

He said that ballot papers weren’t certified and that the rules of the referendum was changed 15 minutes before the vote began today.

When asked why the Spanish government wouldn’t allow Catalans to vote for or against independence, he said that if a vote were to happen, it would have to include the whole of Spain – “a part cannot decide for the whole”, he said.

When asked how he justified the violence against those who wanted to vote, Dastis said that he had “not seen the violence you seem to have seen”.

He said that some of the images of protests he saw online that dated back to 2012.

Sky News then played footage captured earlier in the day of police charging at protesters, pushing them away from ballots and some protesters lying on the ground.

Their reporter told Dastis that there may be false images online, but that there were unprecedented violent scenes between citizens and riot police today, which was met by applause from the crowd that had gathered around him.

Irish reaction

A number of Sinn Féin members have travelled to Catalonia for the vote and called on the Irish government to condemn the violence by the Spanish state.

“There is a particular onus on Spain’s European neighbours,” he said “including the Irish government, and the European Union to take a stand against the use of violence against those seeking to use their vote and in support of the democratic rights of the Catalan people.”

The Green Party has also condemned the violence, and called on the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, to raise his concerns with the Spanish government.

The Green’s Dublin city councillor Ciarán Cuffe said that “the scenes we are witnessing today are unacceptable in a democracy”.

Imagine if Greater Dublin held a referendum to secede from the Irish State and An Garda Siochána responded with the scenes of violence that we saw on our screens today?

‘We will vote!’

Riot police also stormed a polling station near Girona, smashing the glass doors of the sports centre where Puigdemont was due to vote, then cutting a chain to force their way in.

Inside, they bagged up ballot boxes in black bin liners, wrapping them in police tape before hauling them away.

But the regional government said Puigdemont had managed to vote anyway, tweeting pictures of him casting his ballot in Cornella del Terri, some 10 kilometres (six miles) away.

Spain Catalonia Catalan President Carles Puigdemont arrives to talk to the media at a sports center Source: Francisco Seco

The drama unfolded after a night of tension in which thousands of people, both nervous and excited, had gathered outside polling stations before dawn.

In Barcelona, rows of police vans were in the streets, their blue lights flashing as officers in riot gear, some carrying heavy bolt cutters, walked through the street as crowds thronged the streets outside a polling station.

FC Barcelona condemned the events that prevented “citizens exercising their democratic rights to free expression”.

It was decided that their game against Las Palmas today would be played behind closed doors due to the violent clashes.

“Votarem, votarem!” – Catalan for “We will vote!” – they chanted, many with their hands in the air.

Spain Catalonia People confronts Spanish riot police near a voting site at a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona Source: Felipe Dana via AP Photos

Peaceful resistance

As the rain poured down in Barcelona, students and activists who had spent the night in schools gathered outside with locals to “defend” these polling stations from police as cars drove by honking their horns in support.

Catalan television broadcast footage of crowds in towns and villages all over the region ahead of the referendum, which has triggered one of the worst political crises in Spain in decades.

Although the region is divided over independence, most people want to vote on the matter in legal, binding plebiscite.

“The government today is in a position to affirm that we can celebrate the referendum of self-determination – not as we wanted, but (it will have democratic) guarantees,” government spokesman Jordi Turull told reporters.

The night before the vote, those occuping the polling stations were told to hand out flowers as a sign of peaceful resistance if the police arrived.

“If someone wants to trouble you, you must remain very calm, smile, practice passive resistance – we have a lot of carnations to hand out – and try to delay them as much as possible from taking away our ballot box,” said Joan Font, a 37-year-old teacher.

Spain Catalonia A man tries to offer flowers to a civil guards in Sant Julia de Ramis, near Girona, Spain Source: Francisco Seco

Ballot boxes hidden 

But the interior ministry said it had started seizing ballot boxes, adding police were “continuing to deploy in Catalonia” to stop the referendum.

Spain’s central government is staunchly against the vote, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, and has vowed to stop it from taking place.

On orders of judges and prosecutors, police have seized ballot papers, detained key organisers and shut down websites promoting the vote.

The ballot boxes have been at the centre of attention during the crisis, with many wondering where they were hidden and how they would be delivered to polling stations.

Occupied schools

Whatever happens, today’s referendum result will not be recognised by Madrid, and almost certainly not by the international community.

Yesterday Spain’s interior ministry said police had closed most of the 2,315 polling stations across Catalonia.

But dozens of others were occupied by teachers, parents, students and activists determined to let people in anyway, with schools coming up with innovative ways to stay open over the weekend through by organising activities ranging from kids’ pyjama parties to volleyball games.

A regional government source said voting may also happen in other places like health centres and even retirement homes, with people able to cast their ballots at any voting station by using their passports or other identification documents.

Turull said there would be ballots papers at all polling stations but voters could also use home-printed versions downloaded from the internet.

Spain Catalonia People block the street in a stand off with civil guards in Sant Julia de Ramis, near Girona, Spain Source: Francisco Seco via AP Images

Unity protests

Earlier this week, the Mossos d’Esquadra Catalan police warned about the risk of “disruption of public order” if people were prevented from casting ballots.

Madrid has sent thousands of extra police officers from other forces to Catalonia to stop the referendum from happening.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government has come under fire for limiting its response to the crisis to repeating that the referendum is unconstitutional.

“The state needs to explain the benefits of remaining united, instead of repeating all the time that the referendum is illegal,” said Rafael Castillo, a 59-year-old engineer at a rally in Madrid, wearing a scarf with the Spanish flag around his neck.

© – AFP, 2017 with reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

Read: Spanish police seal off 1,300 polling stations in Catalonia>

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