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Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont brands Spanish attitude to referendum totalitarian

Guardia Civil officers stand guard at the entrance of the Department of External Affairs, Institutional Relations and Transparency of the Catalan Government office in Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday. Picture by Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press
Aritz Parra and Ciaran Giles

The leader of Catalonia has said Spain is showing a "totalitarian attitude" with the arrests of Catalan officials and civil servants, and vowed to go ahead with an independence referendum despite legal warnings not to do so.

Carles Puigdemont appeared with members of his cabinet following several arrests in an ongoing operation by Civil Guard agents.

Those arrested include a top official managing the region's economic affairs.

Mr Puigdemont said the police operations are unlawful and are aimed at preventing Catalans from voting on October 1.

The vote has been suspended by Spain's Constitutional Court while judges consider the central government's claims that it is illegal.

Mr Puigdemont added that the central authorities moves amount to a "de facto" suspension of Catalonia's self-rule.

Mr Puigdemont's comments came after Spanish police reportedly arrested at least 12 people in raids on Catalan government offices.

National authorities have intensified a crackdown on the region's preparations for the secession vote which Spain regards as illegal.

It marks the first time Spanish authorities have detained Catalan officials since the campaign for a secession vote in Catalonia began to gather momentum in 2011.

The move marked the latest spike in tensions between authorities based in Madrid and pro-independence Catalans.

Almost immediately after the news, hundreds of Catalans gathered to protest against the raids outside government offices in the region's capital, Barcelona.

Some demonstrators sat down in the street to block police cars, while others scuffled with officers.

The Catalan regional government confirmed Josep Maria Jove, secretary general of economic affairs, was among those arrested.

Mr Jove is second-in-command to the region's vice president and economy chief, Oriol Junqueras.

Spain's Europa Press news agency and other media outlets said the raids mostly targeted Catalonia's economic and foreign departments as authorities worked to halt all preparations for the October 1 vote.

Police and judicial authorities declined to give details of the operation, saying a judge has placed a secrecy order on it.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy said his conservative government is determined to prevent the ballot.

He said the Catalan government is going against the Spanish constitution by holding the vote and that, "logically, the state has to act".

Mr Rajoy added: "No democratic state in the world would accept what these people are proposing."

His stance has the backing of most Spanish opposition parties.

The Constitutional Court has ordered the vote to be suspended as it studies its legality, but Catalan officials said they will press ahead regardless.

Spain's interior ministry has cancelled time off and scheduled leave for Civil Guard and National Police officers who are being deployed to ensure the ballot does not happen. It gave no details on the number of agents involved.

In another tightening of the screw, Spain's finance ministry said it has imposed further controls over the Catalan government's finances to ensure no public money is used for the referendum.

Finance minister Cristobal Montoro signed an order late on Tuesday that limits new credit and requires central authorities' supervision for every payment of non-essential services in Catalonia, the ministry said.

The measure means that virtually all the Catalan public spending will be in the hands of Madrid. The finance ministry took over the direct payment of basic services such as education, health and civil servants' salaries last week.

Mr Puigdemont claimed this move by central government has effectively ended Catalonia's self-rule. The region, like others in Spain, has broad self-governing powers.

Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain's €1.1-trillion economy.

The area's 7.5 million inhabitants overwhelmingly favour a referendum, but are estimated to be evenly divided over independence.

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