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With eye to Scotland, Catalans in Spain seek secession vote

BARCELONA — Hundreds of thousands of Catalans energized by Scotland's upcoming independence referendum protested Thursday for a secession vote aimed at carving out a new Mediterranean nation in what is now northeastern Spain, showing how the Scottish vote in a week is captivating breakaway-minded Europeans from Barcelona to Spain's Basque country, Belgium, and Italy.

Sporting bright yellow and red shirts representing the colors of the Catalonian flag emblazoned with the phrase ''Now is the time,'' they shouted ''Independencia!'' and crowded two avenues that look like a ''V'' from the air to signal their desire for a Catalonia independence referendum that the central government in Madrid maintains would be illegal.

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Just how many showed up was in dispute after the protest ended. Barcelona police said 1.8 million participated but the Spanish Interior Ministry's regional office in Catalonia put the number at no more than 525,000, among them retired hospital director and economist Lluis Enric Florenca.

''If the yes wins in Scotland, and it looks like it will be close, and Europe accepts it, they will accept Catalonia, which is bigger and in relation to Spain stronger than Scotland in relation to England,'' said Florenca, 65. ''Catalonia is potentially much more powerful.''

Catalonia regional leader Artur Mas said his government is not wavering from plans to hold a Nov. 9 referendum in the region of 7.6 million people, though observers say any attempt is sure to be blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court. Mas has repeatedly said he would not call an illegal vote.

''This is a very powerful message we are sending to Europe and the world,'' Mas said. ''Now is the moment to sit down and negotiate the terms for the Catalan people to be able to express themselves at the polls.''

Polls suggest Scotland's independence vote on Sept. 18 is too close to call, and that has captivated a variety of groups in addition to Catalan separatists. They include pro-independence Basques in northern Spain; Corsicans who want to break away from France; Italians from several northern regions; and Flemish speakers in Belgium demanding more autonomy, independence, or union with the Netherlands.

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Unlike the Scottish ballot, a vote in Catalonia would not result in secession. Mas's proposed referendum would ask Catalans whether they favor secession. If the answer is yes, Mas says, that would give him a political mandate to negotiate a path toward independence.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain has vowed to block the vote because Spain's constitution does not allow referendums that do not include all Spaniards, but Mas told reporters that would be a mistake.

''The Catalan issue is one of the biggest issues the Spanish government is facing,'' Mas said. ''It is an error to try and solve this through legal means. Political problems are solved through politics, not with legal threats.''

If Madrid refuses to allow an independence vote, a go-ahead by Mas could put him in perilous legal terrain. When the northern Basque region failed to obtain permission for a similar referendum in 2005, Spain said Basque leaders could face jail if they went ahead.

The next step for Mas comes the day after Scotland's vote, when the Catalan Parliament is expected to approve a measure giving him the power to call a referendum. Rajoy's government is then expected to ask Spain's Constitutional Court to rule the vote illegal.

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