Protesters set fire to bins and chant ‘The streets will always be ours’ in fifth night of rioting
Protesters throw a Spanish flag into the flames. Photograph: Marta Perez/EPA
Catalonia suffered a fifth consecutive night of rioting on Friday after violence erupted in Barcelona following a peaceful demonstration attended by more than 500,000 people in protest at the heavy sentences handed down to Catalan politicians and activists.
There were disturbances and police charges on Via Laietana near the headquarters of the Spanish national police during Friday afternoon but, no sooner had the demonstration begun to disperse at 6.30pm than rioting broke out around Plaça Urquinaona in the city centre.
Black smoke rose 10 metres above the city as protesters set fire to rubbish bins and a newspaper kiosk. Thousands gathered in the surrounding streets chanting: “The streets will always be ours!”
Four hours after the first skirmishes, Via Laietana was a battleground strewn with rubble. Police struggled to control the situation, firing rubber bullets, teargas and later in the night, a water cannon was deployed against demonstrators for first time since it was bought from Israel in 1994.
Demonstrators dispersed into the adjoining streets where they set up barricades and fought cat-and-mouse battles with the police. At least 35 people were treated for injuries and there were 10 arrests.
The Spanish government said a group of about 400 protesters was attacking police and warned anyone engaged in similar acts that they faced six-year prison terms.
Authorities announced late on Friday that 207 officers had been injured in the unrest. Nearly 800 bins were set on fire and 107 police vehicles were damaged.
The escalating violence came at the end of a general strike and amid significant disruption caused by the huge and peaceful marches.
According to Barcelona police, about 525,000 people congregated in the city, many of them having marched there from around Catalonia. Earlier, marchers entering Barcelona found themselves pelted with stones as they passed through the working-class neighbourhood of Santa Coloma de Gramenet.
Their presence brought the city to a standstill before a huge demonstration began at 5pm local time. The entrance to the Catalan capital’s most famous landmark – the Sagrada Familia church – was blocked by pro-independence protesters and 57 flights were cancelled at Barcelona-El Prat airport.
On Friday morning, the Spanish football federation announced that the Barcelona-Real Madrid game due to be played in the Catalan capital next weekend had been postponed because of the unrest.
Meanwhile, a judge at Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, ordered police to shut down the website and social media accounts of Tsunami Democràtic, the pro-independence organisation that has used apps to coordinate and control protests. The group was behind Monday’s attempts to occupy Barcelona airport. The shutdown left many protesters milling aimlessly in the absence of instructions.
Peaceful protests, which have long been the hallmark of the pro-independence movement, have been eclipsed this week by violent unrest and running battles between protesters and police.
Friday’s violence surpassed that seen on Thursday, when pro-independence supporters clashed with police and rightwing groups in skirmishes that lasted into the early hours.
After another large demonstration broke up, protesters fought police, throwing stones and at least one petrol bomb in an apparent attempt to reach the seat of the Spanish government in the city. A clothing shop was set on fire and a bank vandalised.
One pro-independence protester was badly beaten by a group of rightwing supporters while once again the streets were acrid with the smell of bonfires of burning rubbish. Numerous injuries were reported.
The supreme court’s decision to jail the nine leaders for sedition and misuse of public funds over their roles in the failed push for independence has provoked uproar among many Catalans.
Among those taking part in the march was Anna Parella, a hospital worker from the coastal town of Calella. She had joined the march with colleagues to call for independence and the release of the jailed leaders.
“A lot of people have joined us as we’ve gone along and the mood is really nice and festive,” said Parella.
She said the marchers were all peaceful but added that some people had grown sick of the situation and begun to go about things the wrong way. “I’m against the violence and we can’t have people starting to think we’re all violent,” she said. “Our calls will lose their force if they do.”
Also on Friday, Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president who led the failed bid for independence two years ago, handed himself in to judicial authorities in Belgium in response to the reactivation of an international arrest warrant against him this week. His extradition hearing has been scheduled for 29 October.
Catalonia’s pro-independence regional president, Quim Torra, has been criticised for being slow to condemn the violence – and for calling for civil disobedience while sending in Catalan riot police to restore order.
Speaking on Friday morning, Spain’s interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, said 16 people had been arrested overnight and 10 police officers injured. He repeated the government’s assertion that while people had a right to protest, any violence would be dealt with firmly.
Asked about reports that violent groups from the Basque country, France and Germany were planning to travel to Catalonia to take part in any forthcoming disturbances, he said such participation had already been anticipated by the authorities.
“We know that these kinds of radical, violent people – people with varying ideologies – have been present in Catalonia, particularly Barcelona,” he said. “They tend to turn up for the kind of events we’re seeing in Barcelona.”
Reports have already emerged of some of the violent protesters speaking neither Catalan nor Spanish.