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Spain, Catalonia clash over policing as illegal independence vote nears

MADRID (Reuters) - The mounting political crisis in Spain over Catalonia’s campaign for independence intensified on Saturday with a new row over the control of the local police force as the regional government pressed ahead with plans to hold an illegal vote next weekend.

An armed Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra officer stands guard at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain, September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

The State prosecutor in Catalonia told all local and national police forces on Saturday that they had been temporarily placed under a single chain of command reporting directly to the interior ministry in Madrid.

But Catalonia’s interior chief, Joaquim Forn, said his department and the local police, or Mossos d’Esquadra, did not accept this decision.

“We denounce the intervention of the state to control the police forces of Catalonia ... We will not accept this control,” Forn said in a televised speech.

It was not immediately clear whether the regional administration and the Mossos could actually oppose the decision, as Spanish laws allow for the possibility of state police taking the lead over the police of an autonomous community during a joint operation.

The central government representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, had earlier said the Mossos remained in charge of security in Catalonia though they would be “coordinated” directly by the interior ministry and not by the local authorities, together with two national police forces also on the ground in Catalonia.

“We are not taking over the police competencies of the regional government,” Millo told reporters after an event held by his People’s Party (PP) in Palma de Mallorca, in Eastern Spain.

Millo also called on Catalan leaders, including Forn, to stop encouraging street protests and demonstrations.

Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia said the prosecutor’s order would remain in place until at least Oct. 1, when the vote is due to take place.

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The Mossos are one of the symbols of Catalonia’s autonomy and for many Catalans the prosecutor’s decision may be reminiscent of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when the Mossos were abolished.

Several pro-independence groups have called for widespread protests on Sunday in central Barcelona.

“Let’s respond to the state with an unstoppable wave of democracy,” a Whatsapp message which was used to organize the demonstration read.

The Catalonian government opened a new website on Saturday with details of how and where to vote on Oct. 1, challenging several court rulings that had blocked previous sites and declared the referendum unconstitutional.

“You can’t stem the tide,” Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont said on Twitter in giving the link to the new website.

But Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insisted again that the vote should not go ahead.

“It will not happen because this would mean liquidating the law,” he said at the PP event in Palma de Mallorca.

Acting on court orders, the Spanish state police has already raided the regional government offices, arrested temporarily several senior Catalan officials accused of organizing the referendum and seized ballot papers, ballot boxes, voting lists and electoral material and literature.

The finance ministry in Madrid has also taken control of regional finances to make sure public money is not being spent to pay for the logistics the vote or to campaign.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 police officers coming from other Spanish regions have already arrived in Catalonia or are on their way. They will join 5,000 state police already based in the region and 17,000 local Mossos.

Editing by Greg Mahlich