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Catalonia's separatists back on streets ahead of Madrid talks

Thousands of Catalans march in the streets of Barcelona, on September 11, 2021. (Photo by Reuters)

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Catalonia in the first major independence rally this year, as leaders of the wealthy northeastern region are set to hold talks with the Spanish central government in the coming days.

More than a hundred thousand people thronged the streets of Barcelona on Saturday, the day of Catalonia's national day, or "Diada," which commemorates the 1714 fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession.

While police put the number of participants at about 108,000, the organizer of the rally — Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) — said the march drew as many as 400,000 supporters.

The rally was the first of its kind since June when Madrid pardoned nine Catalan leaders who had been jailed for their role in a 2017 botched bid for independence.

Back then, the regional leaders defied a government ban to organize a secession referendum and then issued a short-lived declaration of independence.

The leaders behind the move were arrested, tried and sentenced to long jail terms by Spain's top court, while others fled abroad to avoid prosecution.

Some of the nine pardoned politicians and activists attended Saturday's protests.

“For the first time in four years, nine very special people have participated in La Diada again. The political prisoners are back on the streets," said ANC chairwoman Elisenda Paluzie.

The march was held as top-level talks on resolving the Catalan crisis are set to resume next week between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's minority government and Catalonia’s regional government.

Sanchez tweeted Saturday that he wanted "to advance towards what unites us" and work for a positive outcome for the region.

Catalonia leaders demand an amnesty for those involved in the failed independence bid, including the exoneration of those who fled Spain, and a referendum on self-determination, this time with Spain's approval.

Madrid, however, is opposed to both requests.

Tensions rose between Madrid and Catalonia this week after the central government suspended plans to expand Barcelona airport, citing a "lack of confidence" in the region’s leadership.

Catalonia's regional leader Pere Aragones denounced the move as “blackmail.”

Catalonia, with a population of 7.8 million, is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions.

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