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Catalans Vow to Fight On as Spain Orders Leader's Arrest

The drive to turn Catalonia, a wealthy and culturally distinct region of 7.5 million people, into a new European country has plunged Spain into crisis.
Image: Catalonia Independence
A man holding a Catalan separatist flag looks at men holding a Spanish flag outside the regional government headquarters in Barcelona on Monday.Juan Medina / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

BARCELONA, Spain — Backers of Catalan independence vowed Monday to continue their struggle to break up Spain even as the country's government moved to prosecute the movement’s leaders for rebellion.

Xavier Pascual Jordana, a bartender in Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood, admitted he was relatively late to the cause. But recent events, such as the sight of police beating voters trying to cast ballots during a disputed independence referendum on Oct. 1, had driven him in that direction.

“I thought it was enough to have a language and a culture, but after the insults and the violence,” the 32-year-old said, his voice trailing off. “I wasn’t born pro-independence — they made me this way.”

The drive to turn Catalonia, a wealthy and culturally distinct autonomous region of 7.5 million people, into a new European country has plunged Spain into its biggest crisis in decades.

Life returned to normal on Monday in Gracia, a picturesque and trendy neighborhood which is also a pro-independence stronghold.

Children went to school, a street-cleaning truck crawled down the narrow roads spraying water on asphalt, and fruit sellers, cafes and pharmacies opened for business.

Teresa Masot, 61, a retired librarian, said she would fight on.

"The problem is that we Catalans are very stubborn — we don’t forget"

“Catalonia is part of Spain by conquest,” she told NBC News as she played with her 16-month-old grandson. “This has never been digested by the Catalans. Madrid believes it has a right of conquest.”

This sense that Madrid has long imposed its will on the region is commonly held, even among many Catalans who favor remaining linked to Spain in some way, such as Masot.

“The problem is that we Catalans are very stubborn — we don’t forget,” she added. “There has been resistance in our homes. We have maintained our culture and language.”

The Gracia district of Barcelona, Spain.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images file

The list of grievances that Masot and others mention is long: a Spanish royal family imposed at the end of Gen. Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship in the 1970s, the Catalan culture and a language long suppressed, and a corrupt central government that mismanaged the 2008 economic crisis.

Around 90 percent of about 2.25 million people who cast their ballots in the Oct. 1 referendum supported independence — about 42 percent of registered voters.

On Friday, the Catalan parliament voted for the region to become independent in a secret vote after almost half of the chamber walked out. Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, then assumed direct control of the region, firing its secessionist government and calling a snap election for Dec. 21.

On Sunday, a massive pro-Spain rally issued full-throated cry of loyalty to the government in Madrid in the heart of the rebellious region.

"We won't let Spain be torn apart into pieces," read one banner. "The awakening of a silenced nation," read another.

Spain's state prosecutor said Monday that he would seek charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement against members of Catalonia's ousted secessionist government. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is among those facing charges. Spanish government officials confirmed Monday that Puigdemont had traveled to Brussels.

Belgium's state secretary for asylum policy, Theo Francken, said over the weekend that it would be "not unrealistic" for Puigdemont to request asylum.

The rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges carry maximum sentences of 30, 15 and six years in prison, respectively. It wasn't immediately clear when judges would rule on the prosecutors' request.

A man waves a pro-independence flag in Barcelona Monday as Catalans returned to work following last week's vote by lawmakers to split from Spain.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Some residents expressed confusion about who was actually running Catalonia.

"I don't know — the Catalan government says they are in charge, but the Spanish government says they are," said Cristina Guillen, who works at a bag shop. "So I have no idea, really. What I really think is that nobody is in charge right now."

Antonia Vidal, a supporter of independence, said she was anxious for the situation to be resolved.

“Of course I’m nervous,” the retired civil servant said while on her way to English class. “Like little kids, [the government in Madrid] covered their ears and hoped the problem would go away. But the problems continued.”

Then she smiled and stopped walking.

“They’re not going to shut us up. Putting people in jail won’t work either,” Vidal added. “We’ll see what happens, but what is clear is that we have a problem.”

Associated Press contributed.