A protester draped with an "estelada" or independence flag stands outside outside the Sagrada Família basilica during pro-independence gathering on the fifth day of protests over the conviction of a dozen Catalan independence leaders in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. Various flights into and out of the region are cancelled Friday due to a general strike called by pro-independence unions and five marches of tens of thousands from inland towns are expected converge in Barcelona's center on Friday afternoon for a mass protest with students to and workers who are on strike. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Protests paralyze Catalonia as marches head for Barcelona

October 18, 2019 - 7:12 am

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain's northeastern Catalonia region and its riot-swept regional capital, Barcelona, were paralyzed Friday by a mix of strikes and marches as it faced its fifth day of protests over the conviction of independence leaders.

Spain's central authorities said that 57 flights into and out of the region were canceled for the day due to a general strike called by pro-independence unions. Picketers also closed off to traffic the border with France across the Pyrenees and burned tires or blocked dozens of roads and highways across the northeastern region.

Commuter and long-distance train services were reduced significantly, and many shops and factories didn't open for business. Architect Antoni Gaudí's modernist Sagrada Familia, a tourist magnet in central Barcelona, closed its doors due to a protest blocking the access to the basilica.

Highways were occupied by thousands of people joining five marches from inland towns that are expected to converge in Barcelona's city center on Friday afternoon for a mass protest with striking students and workers. Farmers in tractors are joining some of the so-called "Freedom marches," organized by the grassroots pro-independence ANC and Omnium groups.

That follows clashes with police that broke out in cities across the region late on Thursday, for the fourth night in a row. In the capital, a mob of far-right anti-independence activists also tried to storm a separatist protest of thousands.

Health authorities in the region say that 42 people were injured Thursday night, most of them in the capital, and the regional police arrested 16 protesters, sending eight to jail, according to Spain's Interior Ministry.

The caretaker interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, said that authorities are tracking "minority groups that are provoking incidents in very specific places," vowing to punish the radicals.

More than 200 people have been arrested since separatist sentiment swelled again this week following the imprisonment of nine separatist politicians and activists who led a push for independence that triggered Spain's deepest political crisis in decades.

Their former leader, Carles Puigdemont, on Friday avoided arrest after he voluntarily testified before Belgian judicial authorities over a new warrant that Spain issued this week following the sentences.

Spain is seeking Puigdemont on possible charges of sedition and misuse of public funds after previously failing to secure his extradition from Germany and Belgium on suspicion of rebellion.

Puigdemont fled to Brussels in late 2017 following the failed attempt to establish a new European republic in the wealthy region, and has since then campaigned for Catalan independence from there.

In May, he was elected as European lawmaker, but he wasn't sworn in because Spain's electoral board said he didn't qualify for the seat by failing to show up in Madrid to swear Spain's constitution.

The Belgian judge did not put bail conditions on him while the case is being examined, making any immediate extradition unlikely.

The separatist leader told Belgian authorities that he rejects being sent back to Spain. He was ordered to remain in Belgium but can apply for permission to travel abroad, his lawyers said.

Puigdemont told reporters waiting outside of the prosecutor's office in Brussels that he did not fear justice "from a fair court."

The Catalan regional security minister on Friday said that the recent violence didn't represent the wider and peaceful separatist movement.

"The images that we are seeing in Barcelona and other Catalan towns don't match the civilized and peaceful mobilization that we have seen in the past few years," Miquel Buch said.

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Morenatti reported from Barcelona, Spain. AP writer Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

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