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Hundreds of thousands converge on Barcelona on 5th day of Catalan protests

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators waving pro-independence flags and chanting "freedom for political prisoners" joined marches across Catalonia on Friday, the fifth day of protests against the jailing of nine separatist leaders over a failed bid to break away from Spain in 2017.

Spain's Supreme Court sentenced 9 separatist leaders to up to 13 years in jail each

Catalan demonstrators, in Barcelona, hold a banner reading 'General strike' on Friday. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets after nine separatist leaders were sentenced over their roles in the failed 2017 referendum on independence. (Reuters)

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators waving pro-independence flags and chanting "freedom for political prisoners" joined marches across Catalonia on Friday, the fifth day of protests against the jailing of nine separatist leaders over a failed bid to break away from Spain in 2017.

The marchers, some of whom began their trek on Wednesday from municipalities across the northeastern Spanish region, were set to reach the regional capital Barcelona later in the day.

Tensions between Madrid and Catalonia have been rising since Monday, when Spain's Supreme Court sentenced nine politicians and activists to up to 13 years in jail each.

Pro-independence leaders went ahead with a 2017 referendum on independence, despite it being deemed illegal by Spanish courts, followed by a declaration the region was breaking away from Spain. Madrid responded by seizing control of the Catalan administration and putting the ringleaders on trial.

The sentences set off the worst sustained street violence Spain has seen in decades, with clashes between protesters and police, posing a major challenge both for the Spanish government and pro-independence regional authorities.

As protests erupted across Catalan on Friday, fugitive former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont handed himself in to Belgian justice authorities after Spain issued a new warrant for his arrest. 

Puigdemont's office said Friday that he, "in the company of his lawyers, voluntarily appeared before Belgian authorities" in relation to the arrest warrant. It said Puigdemont rejects the warrant and opposes any attempt to send him back to Spain.

Meanwhile, the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) said in a statement on that Barcelona's Oct. 26 home match against Real Madrid, one of the biggest rivalries in the sport, had been postponed due to security concerns.

Catalan demonstrators chant slogans in front of La Sagrada Familia basilica during Catalonia's general strike on Friday. The basilica, one of Barcelona's main tourist attractions, has been closed due to the demonstrations. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

Friday's marchers, ranging from families pushing prams to cyclists wheeling their bicycles, took over a highway lane and other major roads as they walked peacefully toward the Catalan capital, many sporting yellow ribbons, a sign of protest against the jailing of Catalan independence leaders.

Barcelona's Sagrada Familia, one of Barcelona's main tourist attractions, has shut down due the separatist protests, an official at the basilica said Friday.

The Sagrada Familia's official Twitter account said a group of protesters stood at the entrance and access to the premise could not be guaranteed anymore.

Major roads were blocked off across Catalonia and several main streets in Barcelona were closed to traffic in anticipation of the marches, as well as picket lines that had begun springing up, while regional trains and the city's metro were running on a reduced timetable after pro-independence unions called a strike.

Sanchez says illegal actions punished, not political ideas

Spain's interim prime minister says the mass protests are proof that illegal actions are punished in Spain, but not political ideas.

Pedro Sanchez is facing a general election in less than one month amid mounting tensions over the conviction of the separatist leaders.

Spain's acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, speaking at news conference at the end of the European Union leaders in Brussels, said on Friday that the mass protests in Catalonia are proof that illegal actions are punished, but not political ideas. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters)

Speaking to reporters in Brussels after a meeting of European leaders, the socialist leader said Friday that Spain guarantees freedom to protest but vowed to prosecute radicals who rioted this week.

"The rule is clear," Sanchez said. "Those who break the law have to answer for their deeds sooner or later."

He also urged Catalonia's pro-independence government to stop ignoring the roughly half of the region's 5.5 million voters who, according to polls and recent election results, want to remain in Spain.

Protests began Thursday with largely peaceful demonstrations as young people draped in Catalan flags tossed balls and skipped rope. The mood shifted later in the night, with protesters setting fire to cafe chairs lining the fashionable Rambla de Catalunya street in the heart of Barcelona's tourist district.

An official from Barcelona town hall said around 10 trees were set on fire on Thursday.

Flights cancelled

Barcelona's El Prat airport, forced to cancel around 150 flights this week after it was barricaded by thousands of people, was running normally for the most part, according to Spain's Ministry of Public Works. Around 36 flights operated by Vueling were cancelled on Friday due to the strike, the Spanish low-cost airline owned by IAG said on Twitter.

Barcelona town hall said 700 garbage containers were set ablaze since protests began on Monday and estimated that the city had suffered damage totalling more than 1.5 million euros (about $2.2 million Cdn).

Demonstrations were largely peaceful Thursday, but the mood shifted later in the night, with protesters setting fire to cafe chairs lining Rambla de Catalunya street Barcelona's tourist district. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

Regional police said 16 people were arrested across Catalonia on Thursday, while health officials said medical aid was provided to 42 people.

Carmaker Seat, a unit of Volkswagen AG, said it had halted production at its plant in Martorell, about 40 kilometres northwest of Barcelona, from Thursday afternoon until Saturday, over concerns that the marches would disrupt traffic, a company spokesperson said.

Barcelona's wholesale market, MercaBarna, said visits to its fish sellers were down 85 per cent on Friday, while flower sellers at the market saw 90 per cent fewer customers.