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Catalan leaders: Barcelona attack won't derail independence drive

BARCELONA/MADRID (Reuters) - Catalonia’s leaders said on Friday that a deadly van attack in their capital, Barcelona, would not affect plans to hold an October referendum in the northeastern region on breaking away from the rest of Spain.

A man holds a Catalan flag as people gather to osberve a minute of silence at Placa de Catalunya, a day after a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas, in Barcelona, Spain August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Thirteen people were killed when a van plowed into crowds in central Barcelona on Thursday afternoon. Another woman died on Friday from injuries she sustained in a attempted attack hours later in the Catalan resort of Cambrils, which police said they thwarted by shooting dead five suspects.

The attacks come at a time of increasing tension between Madrid and Barcelona before the planned plebiscite on Oct.1, which the central government aims to block through the courts on the grounds that it goes against Spain’s constitution.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonia’s regional leader Carles Puigdemont put on a rare united front on Friday at a joint news conference, after making separate televised addresses the night before.

But signs of the strained relations between the affluent, populous region and Madrid authorities were still apparent.

Asked in a radio interview about an editorial in leading Spanish daily El Pais which called on Catalan parties to “return to reality” after the attacks, Puigdemont said: “Mixing up our priority now, which is to respond to the terrorist threat and attend to victims, with anything seems just vile to me.

“We’re not the only, or the first, city in Europe where there has been a massacre like this.”

Puigdemont said the region’s “roadmap” toward independence would not be derailed by the attacks.


On the streets of Barcelona, some bristled at the thought of politicians forging ahead with plans for a referendum after the attacks.

“It would be insensitive to keep pressing on with the independence movement. Now is the time for Spain to unite, not to divide itself up,” said Sandra Arro, a textiles designer from Argentina who lives in the port city.

Others said they saw no reason why the suspected Islamist militant attacks - the deadliest in Spain since bombings on commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 people in 2004 - would have any bearing on an independence vote.

“People with nationalist sentiments aren’t going to change their opinion because of the attack,” said Ines Troncia, who works in a cafe in the city’s Gothic quarter, adding that she was in favor of a referendum and would back a split from Spain.

Catalonia has long been home to an independence movement, though it has gained strength during a recent recession. Its vibrant economy accounts for about one fifth of Spain’s output.

Carlos Barrera, a political communications professor at the University of Navarre, said it was unlikely the referendum would be postponed, adding it would send the wrong signal about the knock-on effects of attacks.

He said leaders in Madrid and Barcelona may have to tread carefully, however, to avoid inflaming tensions even further by trying to score political points after the killings.

“Both the Catalan government and the central government would do well to keep the two things separate,” Barrera said.

Rajoy, who traveled to Barcelona after news of the van attack broke, stressed the importance of acting in unison, both in his initial comments and later when he appeared with Puigdemont.

“Terrorists are beaten by institutional unity, by cooperation between police forces,” Rajoy said in the early hours of Friday.

“They are also beaten through broad agreements between political parties. (...) Let’s never forget that Spaniards are a people united by values of which we are very proud.”

Additional reporting by Blanca Rodriguez, Editing by Julien Toyer and Mark Trevelyan