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Exiled Former Catalan President Drops Bid to Return as Leader

FILE - Fugitive Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont addresses reporters in Brussels, Belgium, Jan. 24, 2018.

The former leader of Spain's separatist-minded Catalonia region unexpectedly announced Thursday that he was dropping his bid to return to his job.

Carles Puigdemont spoke from somewhere in Brussels, where he fled to avoid arrest in Spain.

He said in a video message posted on a website that under current conditions, standing aside and letting someone else lead Catalonia was the way to get a new government.

Puigdemont urged the Catalan parliament to choose pro-independence ally Jordi Sanchez as the new regional president.

But Sanchez is in jail in Madrid while prosecutors decide whether to formally charge him with sedition and rebellion — the same charges that led Puigdemont to flee to exile in Belgium.

Puigdemont defied the warning of the central Spanish government and, after a referendum, unilaterally declared independence for Catalonia in October, leading to police violence and a takeover of the Catalan government by Madrid.

Pro-independence lawmakers won a slim majority in December's parliamentary elections in Catalonia, but the future of the bid for independence is murky.

Catalonia, in northeast Spain, and its capital, Barcelona, are major tourist magnets. The region has his own language and distinct culture. But the separatist crisis has hurt tourism and the regional economy.

Catalan separatists say the region is a powerful economic engine that drives Spain and have demanded more autonomy. Those who want to stay united with Spain are afraid the region will sink into an economic abyss without the central government, its ties to the European Union and its numerous bilateral relationships.