Spanish Prime Minister Announces Plan for 'Coup', Taking Control of Catalonia

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But it took on an even angrier tone after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced his government would move to dismiss the region's separatist government, take control of its ministries and call fresh elections in Catalonia.

The move, meant to quash an independence bid led by Catalonia's regional government, follows weeks of division triggered by a banned independence referendum on October 1.

Rajoy could force the removal of Catalan officials and call early regional elections for as soon as January. These are: to return to legality; to restore normality and coexistence in Catalonia: to continue the region's economic recovery; and to hold elections in conditions of normality.

"We are not ending Catalan autonomy, but we are relieving of their duties those who have acted outside the law", Mr Rajoy said.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont called for a meeting of the autonomous community's parliament to discuss measures that could be taken in response to the Spanish government's decision to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.

Rajoy's Popular Party has a majority in the Senate.

The measures take the country into uncharted legal waters, and come just a day after Madrid won powerful backing from the king and the European Union in its battle to keep the country together.

The Spanish government's proposed measures still have to be approved by the Senate.

Municipal police said 450,000 people rallied on Barcelona's large Paseo de Gracia Boulevard, spilling over onto nearby streets, many holding Catalonia's yellow, red and blue Estelada separatist flag.

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Pro-independence protesters are expected to demonstrate in the center of Barcelona, Catalonia's regional capital, later Saturday.

"Spain needs to face up to an unacceptable secession attempt on its national territory, which it will resolve using legitimate democratic institutions, respecting our constitution, adhering to the values and principles of the parliamentary democracy in which we have lived for 39 years", Felipe said.

Independence supporters in Barcelona have been gathering for a rally urging the release of two influential separatist activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, who are being held on sedition charges.

The slow-burning constitutional crisis over secession escalated this month when regional government officials claimed a disputed independence referendum held October 1 gave them a legal basis for separating from Spain.

Bartomeu says Barcelona sides with those who defend the Catalan people's right to vote in a referendum for independence.

Rajoy's government is activating a previously untapped constitutional article to take control of Catalonia.

The country's Constitutional Court has so far ruled against all moves toward secession, including the Catalan referendum.

Catalonia is roughly evenly split over whether to break away from Spain, according to polls, with supporters saying the region pays too much into national coffers but their opponents arguing that it is stronger as part of a bigger country.

Barcelona resident Rosa Isart said the Spanish government's determination to prevent Catalonia from leaving reminded her of Franco's dictatorship decades ago.