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Catalans march for referendum poll

Separatists in north-eastern Spain swarmed Barcelona by the tens of thousands today, waving independence flags as they demanded an independence referendum that the Spanish government insists would be illegal.

Many sported yellow-and-red shirts with the phrase "Now is the time" and shouted "Independencia!" in Catalan as they crowded two avenues that look like a "V'' from the air and positioned themselves there to signify their desire to vote, getting a boost from Scotland's upcoming independence referendum.

Television images showed masses of at least tens of thousands of people participating as the protest got under way.

Organisers said 500,000 people had registered but Catalonia's regional government said it would not provide a crowd count until the event finished.

Catalonia regional leader Artur Mas said his government is not wavering from plans to hold a November 9 referendum in the region of 7.6 million people, even though experts say any attempt is sure to be blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court. Mr Mas has repeatedly said he will not call an illegal vote.

Polls have suggested that Scotland's independence vote on September 18 is too close to call and that has captivated a wide variety of groups in addition to Catalan separatists.

They include pro-independence Basques in northern Spain; Corsicans who want to break away from France; Italians from several northern regions; and Flemish speakers in Belgium demanding more autonomy, independence or union with the Netherlands.

"The dynamics at this point are with the Yes side, and if the Yes side actually wins it creates a strong precedent," said Hugh O'Donnell, a professor of cultural politics at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Unlike the Scottish ballot, a vote in Catalonia would not result in secession.

Mr Mas' proposed referendum would ask Catalans whether they favour secession. If the answer is Yes, he says, that would give him a political mandate to negotiate a path toward independence.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block the vote because Spain's constitution does not allow referendums that do not include all Spaniards, but Mr Mas told reporters that would be a mistake.

"The Catalan issue is one of the biggest issues the Spanish government is facing," Mr Mas said.

"It is an error to try and solve this through legal means. Political problems are solved through politics, not with legal threats."

If Madrid refuses to allow an independence vote, a go-ahead by Mr Mas could put him in perilous legal terrain.

When the northern Basque region failed to obtain permission for a similar referendum in 2005, Spain said Basque leaders could face jail if they went ahead.

The next step for Mr Mas comes the day after Scotland's vote, when the Catalan parliament is expected to approve a measure giving him the power to call a referendum.

His government is then expected to ask Spain's Constitutional Court to rule the vote illegal and experts believe the court will do so.

If that happens and Mr Mas decides to obey the ruling, he could hold Catalan regional elections as an unofficial referendum, with parties obliged to state where they stand on independence.

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