BARCELONA - Catalonia's battered independence movement staged a massive protest Saturday in Barcelona, demanding the release of jailed leaders and recognition of a separate Catalan republic.
Spain's central government imposed direct rule on Catalonia immediately after its regional parliament voted for independence on October 27. It arrested dozens of secessionist politicians, causing the head of the regional government, Carles Puigdemont, to flee to Belgium.
Relatives of eight jailed members of the dissolved regional government and two jailed activists headed the march, carrying banners with their portraits.
Those imprisoned without bail include Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras.
The head of the regional parliament who presided over the independence vote, Carmen Forcadell, did not attend the march, however, despite her release from prison Friday after retracting her secessionist stance before Spanish judges. She said the independence vote had been "symbolic."
A bail of $165,000 was posted for her by the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly (ANC), which was one of the main organizers of Saturday's march.
Even though Madrid's virtual decapitation of the Catalonian secessionist leadership has left the independence movement badly split, the ANC and another organization called Omnium Cultural turned out more than 700,000 protesters Saturday, according to Barcelona police. Other estimates put the figure between 500,000 and 600,000.
Supporters driven in
Despite major divisions among Catalans themselves over secession from Spain, the organizers mobilized their massive turnout by hiring 900 buses to drive supporters from Girona and other outlying towns that are the bastions of the independence movement.
"We must not allow ourselves to be scared or coerced by those who want to want to cut our liberties and annihilate and humiliate our institutions," Puigdemont said in a prerecorded video from Brussels, which was played on a large screen before the crowds.
"We never expected the government to react quite so hard," ANC activist Doria Asina told VOA. "We calculated that the chances of Madrid imprisoning our leaders was no more than 10 percent. It's all come as something of a shock."
The secessionist coalition itself also is fractured.
Heads of the separatist PEdeCAT, Catalan Republican Left and the extreme leftist CUP have traveled to Brussels for meetings with Puigdemont, who is trying to cobble together a united front for independence to contest the December 21 regional elections called by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Spanish government analysts fear that a disconnect could develop between the politicians and radical activists, who may opt for more violent tactics.
"The road seems set for a violent confrontation at some point," a former government minister told VOA on condition that his name not be mentioned.
A general strike called by independence groups this week had a scarce following among Barcelona's labor force. Groups of street activists managed to shut down the city, however, by blocking railroad and highway arteries.
"Spain can only take a few days of this," an ANC member told VOA.