Spain to dismiss Catalonia's government, call elections

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Pro-union supporters walk past a home made appeal for help during a demonstration in a square in Sabadell, Calatonia.

MADRID – Spain took drastic measures Saturday to stop Catalonia from breaking away, announcing it will move to dismiss the region&39;s separatist government and call fresh elections.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his regional ministers, who sparked Spain&39;s worst political crisis in decades by holding a banned independence referendum, will be stripped of their jobs, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said.

Puigdemont&39;s threat to declare a breakaway state "has been unilateral, contrary to the law, and seeking confrontation," said Rajoy, announcing measures that could give the central government direct control over Catalonia&39;s police force and allow for its public media chiefs to be replaced.

Elections for the semi-autonomous region must be called within six months, he added, with Spain&39;s national ministries to take over the jobs of Puigdemont and his team in the meantime.

READ: Spain to push ahead with suspending Catalan autonomy

Tens of thousands of independence supporters have gathered in the tense regional capital Barcelona, with Puigdemont, joining the crowds, due to give his response at 9:00 pm (2100 GMT).

The measures must now pass through the Senate, a process that will take about a week, but Rajoy&39;s conservative Popular Party (PP) holds a majority there and his efforts to prevent a break-up of Spain have the backing of other major parties.

Catalan government number two Oriol Junqueras reacted furiously, posting on his Twitter account: "Today the PP and its allies have not only suspended autonomy, they have suspended democracy."

And though she opposes the independence drive, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau also deplored the decision, tweeting: "Rajoy has suspended the self-government of Catalonia for which so many people fought. A serious attack on the rights and freedoms of everyone."

Autonomy is a highly sensitive issue in Catalonia, which saw its powers taken away under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Home to 7.5 million people, the wealthy northeastern region fiercely defends its language and culture and enjoys control over its policing, education and healthcare.

Uncharted legal waters

Under Article 155 of Spain&39;s constitution, Madrid has the power to wrest back control of rebellious regions, but it has never used them before.

Rajoy said he had been left with no choice following Puigdemont&39;s refusal to drop his threat to declare independence based on the results of the October 1 referendum, which had been ruled unconstitutional.

READ: Catalan leader pressured as independence deadline looms

"This was neither our desire nor our intention," Rajoy said.

"We are applying Article 155 because the government of a democratic country cannot accept that the law is ignored."

Allowing 54 days for campaigning, new elections would fall in mid-June at the latest.

Separatists of all political stripes, from Puigdemont&39;s conservatives to the far-left, have dominated the Catalan parliament since the last elections in 2015, holding 72 seats out of 135.

Prosecutors said Saturday they would take mop-haired former journalist Puigdemont to court for "rebellion" if he makes any attempt to declare independence, a crime punishable with up to 30 years in jail.

Rally in Barcelona

Independence supporters in Barcelona have been gathering for a rally urging the release of two influential separatist activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, who are being held on sedition charges. But Madrid&39;s decision was on the minds of many as the crowds grew.

"I feel totally outraged and extremely sad," said Meritxell Agut, a 22-year-old banker.

"They&39;ve trampled on our rights and our ideas as Catalans," she told AFP, adding: "They can destroy everything they want but we&39;ll keep on fighting."

The president of Barcelona FC, one of the world&39;s best-known symbols of Catalan identity, threw his weight behind the region&39;s institutions.

"We must reiterate our absolute support for the democratic institutions of Catalonia chosen by its people," Josep Maria Bartomeu said, urging a "civil and peaceful" reaction to Rajoy&39;s decision.

Puigdemont says 90 percent backed independence in the referendum, but turnout was 43 percent as many Catalans who back unity stayed away while others were hindered from voting by a police crackdown.

Catalonia is roughly evenly split over whether to break away from Spain, according to polls, with supporters saying the region pays too much into national coffers but their opponents arguing that it is stronger as part of a bigger country.

Two weeks of political limbo have already taken a toll on one of Spain&39;s most important regional economies, with nearly 1,200 companies shifting their legal headquarters elsewhere in a bid to minimise the instability.