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Catalonia’s leader, facing deadline, won’t say if region declared independence

Two men, one wearing a Spanish flag (left) and the other an independence flag, talked in Barcelona on National Day.
Santi Palacios/Associated Press
Two men, one wearing a Spanish flag (left) and the other an independence flag, talked in Barcelona on National Day.

MADRID — The Spanish government has given a new ultimatum to Catalonia’s separatist leader to clarify whether he is withdrawing his plan to declare independence from Spain, after a Monday morning deadline for the separatists to make their intentions clear came and went.

After a perplexing speech Oct. 10 before Catalonia’s Parliament, Carles Puigdemont, the region’s president, sent a letter to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asking to negotiate a solution but declining to clarify whether independence had been declared.

“Mr. Puigdemont has a serious problem, not only in terms of respecting legality but also respecting citizens who are asking for clarity,” Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, deputy prime minister of Spain, said at a news conference in Madrid shortly after receiving Puigdemont’s letter.

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The Catalan leader “should respond yes or no” by Thursday, she said.

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“It’s in his hands to avoid that the next steps be taken,” she said, although she would not detail how Madrid might use the emergency measures at its disposal if Puigdemont refused.

Puigdemont’s strategy is unclear. He may be attempting to drag his feet until the crisis in Catalonia provokes an international effort at mediation, as he has urged, however unlikely that may be.

He may also by trying to push Rajoy to fulfill his own pledge to put an end to the secessionist challenge, which could in turn help galvanize Catalonia’s independence movement if Rajoy uses emergency measures to reduce the region’s level of autonomy.

Rajoy initiated a request last week for his government to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a broad, forceful tool that has never been used — that would allow him to take control of the region.

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Facing a 10 a.m. deadline Monday, Puigdemont asked for an urgent meeting with Rajoy, according to a copy of his letter, and suggested that the conflict could be resolved, with the help of international mediators, within two months.

He also called on Rajoy to end “the repression against the Catalan people and government,” referring to a court summons issued for the chief of the autonomous Catalan police force and the two leaders of the main proindependence citizens’ movements. All could face sedition charges.

Catalan Police Chief Josep Lluís Trapero was questioned Monday for a second time by Spain’s national court about why his officers could not stop a street protest in September and why they failed to close polling stations before the referendum voting started, as had been ordered by Madrid.

The referendum was marred by violent clashes between voters and national police.

The judge in charge of the case indicted Trapero on Monday, as well as the two leaders of the largest proindependence citizens’ movements.

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Trapero was ordered to remain within Spain and to report every two weeks to police pending a trial. The leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement were ordered jailed during sedition investigation.

In his letter, Puigdemont wrote that “the priority for my government is to search intensely for dialogue.” But he did not address the crucial question of whether he had declared independence in his address to Parliament last week.

The speech, which came after a highly disputed referendum on the matter Oct. 1, was meant to create “deliberate confusion,” according to Rajoy, in part because Puigdemont is struggling to keep together his fragile separatist coalition.

Hard-line secessionists want a unilateral rupture with the central government in Madrid, while conservative and moderate separatists have become increasingly worried about the consequences of such a move for Catalonia, particularly after dozens of companies announced plans to move their headquarters out of the region.

Rajoy wrote back to Puigdemont on Monday and rejected the separatist argument that Catalonia had long been mistreated, as part of a historic conflict between Madrid and Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital.

Rajoy wrote that the decisions of Puigdemont’s government had “generated a significant fracture within Catalan society, as well as enormous economic uncertainty,” according to a copy of the letter that was distributed to the news media by his government office.