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Thousands march in Barcelona in rival protests on Spain's national day

(Reuters) BARCELONA - Thousands of people flooded the streets of Barcelona on Friday for rival protests on Spain’s national day, highlighting the division in Catalonia over support for the Spanish state and those seeking independence.

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Chanting the slogan “We are all Spain,” unionist demonstrators waved Spanish, Catalan and European Union flags as they marched through the city center, an area usually busy with tourists.

Protesters carried signs criticizing separatist leader and regional president Quim Torra and former leader Carles Puigdemont, who is now in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

Elsewhere in Barcelona, riot police separated a small counter-demonstration billed as “anti-fascist” from unionists. Last month, police arrested six people following clashes with separatist protesters. Friday’s protest ended without incident.

Despite reduced tensions between Madrid and Barcelona in recent months, a solution to the Catalan crisis appears distant as the government has ruled out granting any referendum on secession.

Separatist parties supported on Thursday a motion in the regional parliament criticizing King Felipe for his response to events in Catalonia last year. The king had spoken out against the independence campaign.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez described the Catalan parliament’s move as “unacceptable” on Thursday, saying the government would take steps to protect the monarchy and other institutions.

In Madrid on Friday, Sanchez and King Felipe attended the annual military parade marking Spain’s national day and the anniversary of explorer Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas on behalf of the Spanish crown.

Polls in Catalonia show a relatively even split between those who favor remaining in Spain and those wanting to secede.

The regional government held an independence referendum in September last year that was deemed illegal by Madrid.

It subsequently made a unilateral declaration of independence, prompting the government of then prime minister Mario Rajoy to suspend the regional assembly and impose direct rule from Madrid.

Although the regional assembly is now sitting again, several separatist leaders are under arrest or in exile.

Reporting by Sam Edwards; Editing by Angus MacSwan