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1.6m Catalans want to go it alone

About 1.6 million people in Spain's north-eastern region of Catalonia say they want to break away from the country and carve out a new Mediterranean nation.

But more Catalans stayed away from the mock independence poll, either because of the poll's questionable legality or their opposition to secession.

With 88% of votes counted, results showed that more two million people voted and 1.6 million favoured forming a new nation that would be separate from the European Union and forced to reapply for membership.

But 5.4 million were eligible to vote - meaning many did not bother to participate amid worries about the vote's lack of legal guarantees and its non-binding status.

Catalan politicians opted for the watered-down poll after plans to hold an official referendum on independence were suspended by Spain's constitutional court amid the central government's challenge that the poll was unconstitutional. The court then suspended the mock vote on the same grounds.

But the regional government defied the suspension, manning polling stations with 40,000 volunteers.

"Despite the enormous impediments, we have been able to get out the ballot boxes and vote," Catalan president Artur Mas said after depositing his ballot at a school in Barcelona.

Polls in recent years say the majority of Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants want an official vote on independence, while around half support cutting centuries-old ties with Spain.

Yesterday's mock vote was the latest massive pro-independence demonstration in the wealthy region fiercely proud of its own traditions and language. It came two months after the Scots voted to remain in the United Kingdom.

Mr Mas has said the vote was only symbolic. It will probably lead to regional elections that would stand in for a referendum on independence, unless the Spanish government relents.

"We ask the world to help us convince the Spanish institutions that Catalonia deserves to vote a referendum to decide its future," Mr Mas said.

There was a festive atmosphere as hundreds lined up in front of another school in Barcelona under an overcast sky, with some wearing pro-independence regalia.

"I voted for independence because I've always felt very Catalan," said Nuria Silvestre, a 44-year-old teacher. "Maybe I wasn't so radical before, but the fact that they are prohibiting (the vote) from Madrid has made me."

Spanish state prosecutors said they were continuing an investigation to determine if by holding the informal vote the Catalan government had broken the law.

Justice minister Rafael Catala called the vote "an act of propaganda organised by pro-independence forces and lacking any democratic validity".

The region's secessionist camp has grown during Spain's economic downturn, with the Spanish government's repeated denials to grant Catalonia control over its financial future.

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