|Catalans prepare 'human chain' independence demo||
Independence-seeking Catalans marshaled their forces on Wednesday for a 400-kilometer (250-mile) human chain in a bold push to break from Spain despite fierce opposition from Madrid.
Demonstrators in yellow t-shirts bearing the slogan “Catalonian Way Towards Independence” prepared for the chain, which organizers said would unite hundreds of thousands of people.
It will stretch across 86 cities, towns and villages along the coast of the northeastern region on the Mediterranean, passing landmarks such as the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona and the city's Camp Nou football stadium.
The action coincides with Catalonia's national day, or Diada, which recalls the final defeat of local troops by Spanish king Philip V's forces in 1714.
“It's going to be a historic day,” said Carme Forcadell, the president of the Catalonian National Assembly, the grassroots group organizing the human chain. She predicted over 400,000 people would take part.
Rain showers were forecast in the region and it was unclear in the morning how many would turn out.
Groups of participants set off by road from Barcelona in the drizzle early Wednesday, their cars decked with pro-independence flags, honking their horns as they headed to join the chain in various parts of the region.
Participants were to link arms at 1714 hours (1514 GMT), a reference to the year 1714, which for many Catalonian nationalists marked the beginning of three centuries of oppression by the Spanish state.
“It was about time we did something like this,” said Joan Sabate, 81, who was planning to join in the chain in central Barcelona.
“I never thought I'd see independence in my lifetime, but now I am hopeful and I think I will,” added Sabate, one of just a few demonstrators in yellow shirts already visible early on Wednesday morning.
Late on Tuesday hundreds of people also held a torchlit march through central Barcelona, waving pro-independence flags -- yellow and red stripes with a white star on a blue background -- and singing the Catalan official anthem.
The protest is an attempt to emulate the 1989 Baltic Way chain that called for the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Hundreds of thousands of people joined in a huge national day rally in Barcelona last year as Catalonian separatist stirrings were stoked by the cuts to health and education services.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's right-leaning government refuses to countenance a breakup of Spain, and has vowed to block a referendum on self-rule that Catalonian regional president Artur Mas has promised for 2014.
Madrid called on the Constitutional Court to strike down a declaration of sovereignty made by the region's parliament in January. The court agreed to hear the appeal, meaning the declaration is suspended until it makes a ruling.
A referendum would be a “unilateral declaration of independence that would have serious consequences for Spain and also for Catalonia” which would have to “bid farewell to the European Union”, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said Tuesday.
Mas hit back, saying Catalonians “must be consulted next year on their political future”.
He would use all the “legal and democratic means” at his disposal to push for Catalonians to vote on their future, he added.
As usual, Mas avoided using the word “independence”.
The Catalonian government wants Spain to follow the example of Britain, which has allowed a referendum on Scottish independence to take place next year.
Proud of their Catalan language and culture, which was repressed under the Francisco Franco dictatorship, many of the 7.5 million people in debt-laden Catalonia resent seeing their taxes redistributed to other parts of Spain.
Suffering in Spain's recession, Catalonia has a jobless rate of 23.85 percent -- lower than the national average of 26.26 percent but still painfully high -- and a public debt of 50.9 billion euros ($67 billion).
It has had to ask Madrid for 9.07 billion euros from a fund to help debt-laden regions.
One in two Catalans, 49 percent, back independence while 36 percent are opposed, according to a Metroscopia poll published Sunday in daily newspaper El Pais.
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