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Ex-Catalonia leader to stay in Brussels

Barcelona, Tuesday

Catalonia’s deposed separatist leader Carles Puigdemont said today that he would stay put in Brussels after being dismissed by the Spanish government, but denied he would seek asylum to avoid possible rebellion charges. “I am not here in order to demand asylum,” Puigdemont, sacked by the Spanish government on Friday after Catalonia’s parliament declared independence, told a packed news conference in Brussels.

He said he was in Belgium “for safety purposes and freedom”, without detailing how long he would stay. After being axed, the 54-year-old reportedly drove hundreds of kilometres from Catalonia to Marseille in southern France with several members of his dismissed cabinet and then flew to Belgium. His departure is the latest twist in the saga over semi-autonomous Catalonia’s drive for independence that has presented Spain with its biggest political crisis in decades.

On October 1, Catalonia held a referendum organised by Puigdemont’s administration which it said saw a large majority vote in favour of seceding from Spain, although turnout was just 43 percent. Puigdemont said this gave the Catalan parliament a mandate to declare independence on Friday, a decision beamed onto big screens to cheering crowds in regional capital Barcelona.

But the same day Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government in Madrid invoked a never-before-used article of the constitution to dismiss Catalonia’s leaders and impose direct rule.

The international community including the European Union, struggling with Brexit and other challenges, has largely spurned the independence declaration and has united behind Madrid. Yesterday Spain’s chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges including rebellion — punishable by up to 30 years in prison — and sedition against Puigdemont and fellow leading separatists.

Jose Manuel Maza said they had “caused an institutional crisis that led to the unilateral declaration of independence carried out on October 27 with total contempt for our constitution”. A court now has to decide whether to bring charges.

Separately, Spain’s Civil Guard police force today searched the headquarters of Catalonia’s regional police in a probe centred on the independence referendum, a spokesman said. Meanwhile, Spain’s Supreme Court summoned the former speaker of the Catalan parliament to charge her, a judicial source said. — AFP

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