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Oct 21, 11:33 AM EDT

Spanish PM aims to take over Catalan govt; residents aghast


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AP Photo/Santi Palacios

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- The Spanish government announced an unprecedented plan Saturday to sack Catalonia's separatist leaders, install its own people in their place and call a new regional election, using previously untapped constitutional powers to take control of the prosperous region that is threatening to secede.

After a special Cabinet session, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he wants the country's Senate to allow central ministers to take over functions from all the members of the Catalan government, including control over the regional police, finances and the public media.

In an effort to derail the independence movement led by the separatist politicians, Rajoy is also seeking the Senate's approval next week to assume the power to call a regional election - something that only Catalonia's top leader can do at the moment.

Even moderate Catalans were aghast at the move, and the announcement was met with banging pots and honking cars in the streets of Barcelona. The city's mayor, Ada Colau, who opposes independence without a valid referendum with basic guarantees, called Madrid's move "a serious attack" on the self-government of Catalonia.

Separatist politicians from the left-wing ERC party called Rajoy's measures a "coup d'etat" to crush Catalonia's autonomy. The region's vice president, Oriol Junqueras, urged supporters to join a protest Saturday in Barcelona, the regional capital.

"Against totalitarianism, today more than ever, let's defend democracy and civil and political rights," Junqueras said, adding that Rajoy's ruling party and its allies have "suspended democracy."

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who will speak on television later Saturday, has threatened to call a vote in the regional parliament for an explicit declaration of independence from Spain.

Rajoy said he is using Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution in order to "restore normalcy" in the country, which faces its most grave institutional crisis in decades with Catalonia's independence movement. He said a new regional election in Catalonia should be held in the next six months.

"There is no country in the world ready to allow this kind of situation within its borders," Rajoy said Saturday. "It is my wish to call elections as soon as normality is restored."

Rajoy's party enjoys a majority in the Senate and he has the backing of the main opposition parties in the move to quash independence for Catalonia and maintain Spain's territorial integrity.

Article 155 gives central authorities to intervene when one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions fails to comply with the law. It's never been applied since the 1978 Constitution was adopted, but Rajoy's conservative government says establishing direct control over Catalonia was a move of last resort.

The slow-burning constitutional crisis over secession escalated this month when regional government officials held a disputed independence referendum on Oct. 1. They then declared the result - which was strongly in favor of independence - gave them a legal basis for separating from Spain even though the vote itself had numerous problems.

The country's Constitutional Court has so far ruled against all moves toward secession, including the Catalan referendum. The court's website appeared to be offline Saturday, and a spokeswoman said it had been affected by vandalism. She requested anonymity in line with internal rules.

Spain's National Security Department said slogans supporting independence for Catalonia had popped up amid cyberattacks on a number of government websites.

Spain's opposition parties have agreed to support Rajoy in revoking Catalonia's autonomy as a way to thwart the region's independence drive.

The pro-business Citizens party president Albert Rivera said he backed Rajoy's measures because Catalonia needs to restore social unity and legal security so companies can remain in the region. Hundreds have transferred their registered headquarters out of Catalonia to other areas in Spain, fearing the chaos that independence - or the fight over it - could bring.

Basque nationalists and the far-left Podemos party were among those opposing the government's move.

"We are in shock about the suspension of democracy in Catalonia," said Podemo's Pablo Echenique, vowing to work to oust Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party.

Barcelona resident Rosa Isart said the Spanish government's determination to prevent Catalonia from leaving Spain reminded her of the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco four decades ago.

"It seems unbelievable that I have to see this again, because of the incompetence of these politicians who don't know how to speak to each other," Isart said.

Others in Catalonia were sympathetic to Rajoy's move. Carlos Assensio said he agreed with the central government, given the separatists' refusal to abide by Spain's laws.

"For the sake of a good co-existence, if we don't respect the law this could be a total anarchy," said the 65-year-old Barcelona resident.

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Pietro DeCristofaro and Vicente Marquez in Barcelona contributed.

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