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Violent clashes escalated in Barcelona late Friday, as radical Catalan separatists hurled rocks and fireworks at police , who responded with teargas and rubber bullets , turning the city centre into a chaotic battleground .
The deterioration came on the fifth consecutive day of protests in the Catalan capital and elsewhere over a Spanish court’ s jailing of nine separatist leaders on sedition charges over a failed independence bid two years ago .
Around half a million people rallied in Barcelona earlier on Friday in the biggest gathering since Monday ’ s court ruling as separatists also called a general strike in the major tourist destination.
But while most marchers appeared peaceful , hoards of young protesters went on the rampage near the police headquarters , igniting a huge blaze which sent plumes of black smoke into the air , as police fired teargas to disperse them .
Other fires raged near Plaza de Catalunya at the top of the tourist hotspot Las Ramblas , where hundreds of demonstrators rallied in defiance of the police , who tried to disperse them with water canon .
“ Anti- fascist Catalonia !” they roared. “ The streets will always be ours !”
Scores of police vans could be seen fanning out around the streets , their sirens screaming as the regional police warned people in a message in English on Twitter “ not to approach ” the city centre.
Earlier , many thousands of “ freedom marchers ”, who had set out to walk from five regional towns on Wednesday , arrived in Barcelona wearing walking boots and carrying hiking poles .
The rally coincided with the general strike, prompting the cancellation of 57 flights , the closure of shops , business and several top tourist attractions , and slowing public transport to a trickle in a region that accounts for about a fifth of Spain ’ s economic output .
Activists also cut off Catalonia ’ s main cross – border highway with France.
– ‘ Reaction to injustice ’ –
In downtown Barcelona , many shops and luxury outlets were closed on the city ’ s Paseo de Gracia, with blackened , charred patches a testimony to the nightly clashes that have raged since Monday .
“With these demonstrations bringing this large city to a halt , we are using Barcelona like a microphone , ” said 23-year – old engineering student Ramon Pararada.
“ It’ s all in reaction to the injustice , ” he said .
Retired lawyer Jaume Enrich agreed , saying the court sentence was “ the straw that broke the camel ’ s back . ”
“ Madrid is putting Spanish unity above everything , including basic rights , ” he told , wearing a badge saying “ No surrender ”.
Nearby a banner fluttered reading “ There are not enough cages for this many birds. ”
– Clashes and closures –
The huge turnout came after yet another night of violent clashes , which Catalan regional interior minister Miquel Buch said involved “fewer incidents , but more violent ”.
And Barcelona city council said the first three days of clashes had cost an estimated 1 . 57 million euros ($ 1 . 75 million ) in damage, with more than 700 large wheelie bins torched and mob violence also damaging traffic lights, street signs, trees and the city ’ s bike- share service.
In Barcelona , Spain ’ s top tourist destination, the Sagrada Familia basilica closed as protesters massed outside , and the famous Liceu opera house cancelled Friday night ’ s performance.
Barcelona ’ s huge wholesale market , which exports around a third of the region ’ s fresh produce , was barely trading on Friday, and at the city’ s famed La Boqueria market , most of the stalls were closed .
Protesters throw objects during clashes near the Police headquarters in Barcelona , on October 18 , 2019,
At one stall, Barcelona – born Susana Medialdea , 53 , was selling olives and pickles entirely dressed in yellow .
“ I came in voluntarily to work but only as long as I could wear yellow to express my total disagreement with the sentence , ” reports told , saying she felt “very angry” about it .
But another veteran stallholder took the opposite view .
“ I am a real Catalan but I don’ t support this independence project at all, people are letting themselves be used , above all the youth, ” said 75- year – old Carmen Isern, accusing the secessionists of dishonesty .
“ We’ ve had seven years of lies . They only tell the teenagers bad things about Spain . ”
– Spain ’s Clasico postponed –
With the region mired in chaos , football authorities cancelled the Barcelona and Real Madrid Clasico set for October 26 at the Camp Nou stadium . Both clubs had reportedly refused an offer to hold the match in Madrid.
And Manchester City’ s Catalan manager Pep Guardiola , an outspoken campaigner for the independence movement , urged European intervention to ease the crisis.
“ The international community must help us to solve the conflict between Catalonia and Spain , ” he said . “ Some mediator from outside (must ) help us sit (down ) and talk. ”
The Supreme Court ’ s explosive decision has thrust the Catalan dispute to the heart of the political debate as Spain heads towards a fourth election in as many years, which will be held on November 10 .
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