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Catalans stage mass-march seeking autonomy

Hundreds of thousands of people from the Spanish region of Catalonia have streamed into Barcelona lobbying for greater autonomy. Local police put the turnout for the record-breaking demo at one and a half million.

The protesters rallied under the slogan: "Catalonia, a new European state." Waving Catalan red-and-yellow striped flags on the region's national day, the Diada, people turned out in record numbers to support independence or greater autonomy for the region.

The central government in Madrid estimated the turnout at 600,000 people, while one Catalan police spokesman in Barcelona said that "there are 1.5 million people and everything has gone peacefully." Police later said that the marchers dispersed peacefully around midnight, and that nobody had been arrested.

The large, comparatively wealthy north-eastern region of Spain has a population of around 7.5 million, its own language, and a historically strong inclination towards autonomy. The region's government already enjoys more freedom than many of its counterparts in Spain's federal system. The Diada national day marks the conquest of Catalonia by King Philip V of Spain in 1714 after a year-long siege of Barcelona.

Ferran Estrada Porta, 79, wearing the traditional cup or barretina and holding a Catalan flag, plays his trumpet on the street in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 (AP)

Catalonia is not the only Spanish region with breakaway ambitions

Spain's current economic difficulties, tied primarily to overexposed banks and an unemployment rate of around 25 percent, have added extra urgency to long-standing talks of either independence or greater regional authority. The Catalan economy, which is larger than Portugal's, accounts for about a fifth of Spain's total economic output.

Autonomy in tough economy

Many of the Catalan protesters said on Tuesday that they felt the regional government was giving too many tax revenues to the central government in Madrid.

The regional government, led by state premier Artur Mas of the pro-autonomy Convergence and Union alliance, is in negotiations with Madrid on budget, taxation and other matters of autonomy.

"If we cannot reach a financial agreement, the road to freedom for Catalonia is open," Mas said on Tuesday. He did not attend the mass-march, but said he supported it in spirit.

Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, elected last December, has said the Catalan government was displaying an "irresponsible" attitude in negotiations, saying it could spark conflict in Spain.

Catalonia has requested loans from Madrid to control its debts, needing them all the more after having its credit rating downgraded earlier in the year. The state government says that it is effectively asking for its own money back. Rajoy has said that greater fiscal freedom or independence will not help either Spain or Catalonia in the short term.

"If at any time in Spain's recent history it has been important to work together for a goal, which is to improve prosperity and the well-being of citizens, to create jobs, to confront the crisis and to resolve it, I think that moment is now," Rajoy said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Catalonia is not far from the Basque region of Spain, where separatist sentiment is also strong.

msh/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)