Jailed Catalans urge peaceful protest for rare visit by Spanish PM

by Reuters
Thursday, 20 December 2018 17:24 GMT

* PM Sanchez to meet Catalonian leader Quim Torra

* Some jailed separatists end hunger strike

* Catalan support important for Sanchez' budget plan (Adds details of the meeting)

By Paul Day and Sam Edwards

MADRID/BARCELONA, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Nine jailed Catalan separatist leaders called on Thursday for large but peaceful protests during a rare visit to Barcelona on Friday by the Spanish cabinet designed to help resolve a political conflict over Catalonia's independence drive.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who also seeks to secure support for his minority government in the northeastern region, will kick off the visit on Thursday when he will meet pro-independence regional government chief Quim Torra.

In signs of a cooling down in the conflict, four of the jailed secessionist leaders unexpectedly called off a hunger strike they started in early December in protest against the legal process. Their party also supported the government's broad plan for budget deficits in 2019 and 2020, which could bode well for the 2019 budget vote in January.

In October 2017, Catalonia unilaterally declared independence, prompting Madrid to take control of the region - which has 7.5 million people and accounts for about a fifth of Spain's economy - and arrested secessionist leaders.

But Sanchez, who came to power in June 2018, has been more open to dialogue with Catalonia.

His Socialists hold a minority in parliament and rely on the backing of pro-independence parties to pass legislation, including the 2019 draft budget.

Friday's planned demonstrations against Madrid will be the latest of many, some of which have drawn hundreds of thousands.

National police will be deployed in Barcelona to guard the cabinet meeting amid fears that extreme elements of the independence movement could stoke violence.

"(Sanchez's government) will want to provoke us, they will be angry, they would like us to be violent, and they will not succeed," the nine prisoners said in a letter released by their political parties.

"Our strength also lies in maintaining, always and everywhere, a civic and peaceful attitude," they wrote.

Despite some promising signs, the wording of the statement remained tough, while support for the budget, without which Sanchez' government could fall, is far from guaranteed.

"Nevertheless, getting the budget passed will still be hard for Sanchez, especially if the separatists continue to ask for a self-determination referendum in return for their support," said Antonio Barroso of the London-based political consultants Teneo.

The central and regional governments also could not avoid disagreement over the agenda, with Torra's cabinet referring to it as a "summit between Catalan and Spanish governments", while Sanchez's cabinet calling it simply a one-on-one meeting.

Spain's constitution prohibits regions from breaking away and the independence drive, backed by around half of Catalans, has caused the country's worst political crisis in decades.

During last year's independence vote, Spanish police attempted to shut down impromptu voting stations, provoking international outcry with the use of batons and rubber bullets in melees that injured dozens. (Writing by Andres Gonzalez, Editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

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