The leader of Catalonia has declared the region has won the right to become an independent state as Spain was plunged into a constitutional crisis amid global condemnation of a police crackdown that turned to violence.
The region’s leader Carles Puigdemont effectively declaring separation came as Catalan authorities said 90% of the 2.2m people who voted in the banned referendum were in favour of leaving Spain.
It followed more than 800 people being injured, some seriously, as baton-wielding riot police moved to shut down polling stations after Spain’s central government declared the vote illegal.
Police burst into polling stations across Catalonia on Sunday, confiscating ballot boxes and voting papers as Madrid asserted its authority over the rebel region.
As rubber bullets were fired to disperse crowds protecting polling stations in Barcelona and other towns and cities, videos posted on social media showed police dragging voters from polling stations by their hair, throwing people down stairs and attacking Catalan firefighters who were protecting polling stations.
“With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form a republic,” Puigdemont said in a televised address, adding the European Union could no longer “continue to look the other way”.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Catalans had been fooled into taking part in an illegal vote. He called it a “mockery” of democracy.
Underlining the tensions between Madrid and the rebel region, Rajoy said in a televised address there was no independence vote on Sunday in Catalonia.
He also thanked the Spanish police, saying they had acted with “firmness and serenity” — comments sure to anger Catalonians. Thirty-three officers were also injured during the violent confrontations.
Pictures and video of the violet clashes quickly spread on social media, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leading the criticism of the “shocking” police violence in the UK.
Spain’s foreign minister moved to downplay the violence, claiming the full extent of the crackdown is unclear since there are “fake photos” circulating on social media.
Alfonso Dastis told Sky News: “I’m sure you have seen what you have seen, but I have seen fake photos that date back to 2012. So, I think we have got to be patient.”
It is unclear what will happen if Catalan officials use the vote to declare the northeastern region independent. Spain would lose one of its most prosperous regions, including the popular coastal city of Barcelona.
But it is unclear how many of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters were able to cast ballots, how their votes would be counted and how many votes had been confiscated by police.
Catalans favoring a break with Spain have long wanted more than the limited autonomy they now enjoy, arguing that they contribute far more than they receive from the central government, which controls key areas including taxes and infrastructure.
As well as nationwide constitutional crisis, the referendum and the subsequent violence poses searching questions for the European Union.
While Labour, the SNP and Liberal Democrats condemned the action of the police force, the UK Government offered solidarity with Madrid.
“The Catalonian referendum is a matter for the Spanish govt & people,” wrote Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, adding: “Spain is a close ally and a good friend, whose strength and unity matters to the UK.”