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Thousands mark Catalan national day amid independence dispute

Hundreds of thousands of people have packed the sunny streets of central Barcelona to celebrate Catalonia's national day, an anniversary that provided a stage for many who hope to vote for independence from Spain.

The Spanish city's broad, tree-lined boulevards were a sea of yellow T-shirts that evoked the striped Catalan flag. Many participants carried the pro-independence flag, known as the "estelada", which adds a blue triangle and white star.

The crowd passed a giant banner overhead calling for a secession referendum.

The annual celebration came amid growing excitement and tension over the independence vote planned for October 1.

Spain's constitutional court has suspended the referendum while it considers its legality, but Catalan leaders say they will go ahead with it.

Spain's national government is doing all it can to stop the ballot, which it says is illegal.

Catalan independence parties said the huge turnout - estimated by Barcelona's municipal police at a million - in the regional capital was a show of strength that would add momentum to the cause.

"Today we have said loud and clear that no orders from any court will stop us," Jordi Sanchez, head of the grassroots movement Assemblea Nacional Catalana, said in a speech to the crowd.

While the stand-off between Barcelona and Madrid is creating divisions, the good-humoured celebration attended by families produced no signs of conflict

Participants sang and clapped along to recordings of the Catalan anthem Els Segadors (The Reapers).

The crowd shouted in unison "Independencia!" after organisers counted down over a public address system to 5.14pm., which on a 24-hour clock is 1714.

That is the year independence supporters regard as the point when Catalonia lost much of the self-governing power it enjoyed for centuries.

Most Catalans support a vote on whether the prosperous region's future lies within or outside of Spain, but polls show that a referendum approved by the central government is preferred over a vote Madrid opposes.

Citizens are also divided over the independence issue. According to a June survey by the Catalan government's own polling agency, 41% supported independence while 49% were for staying in Spain.

Outside of Catalonia, most Spaniards reject the idea.

Among the comparatively wealthy region's grievances is that because it accounts for a fifth of Spain's economic output, it pays more into the central government's coffers than it receives.


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