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Hundreds of thousands of Catalonians join hands for independence

Hundreds of thousands of people have joined hands across Catalonia in a 400-kilometer (200-mile) long show of their desire to break away from Spain. The demonstration marks the region's growing support for independence.

People clad in yellow t-shirts joined hands across highways and towns on Wednesday in the northeastern region of Spain. Many independence supporters were draped in blue, red and yellow separatist flags.

The demonstration was held on Catalonia's public holiday in an effort to stir up support for independence.

Organizers say around 1 million people turned out, while the Catalan government said it would publish official attendance figures later.

Tough economic times

"Today is a historic day," said Carme Forcadell, president of the Catalan National Assembly – the group that organized the event. "The Catalan people have reaffirmed their determination to be a free state."

Many people in Catalonia, which boasts its own distinctive language and culture, feel they have been hard done by the Spanish government as it deals with the country's recession. Some say that were the long-wealthy but recently struggling region be granted independence, it could break free from the tough economic times affecting Spain.

"We need to put an end to the cultural and economic suffocation we are suffering," Forcadell told a crowd in central Barcelona. "We have come out in our hundreds of thousands into the street to show in a democratic and inclusive way that we are capable of achieving any aim we set ourselves."

Madrid unsupportive

The hand joining began at 5:14 pm (1514 GMT) in reference to the year 1714 – the date of a military defeat many Catalonians see as the beginning of Spanish oppression.

Recent polls show an increase in support for independence for Catalonia, a region that accounts for a fifth of Spain's economic output. Some areas show as much as 50 percent of the population supports breaking away from Spain, and many people support the idea of voting on the issue.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's right-leaning government has so far rejected the independence bid, and has vowed to block a referendum on the issue set for next year.

Such a referendum would be a "unilateral declaration of independence that would have serious consequences for Spain and also for Catalonia," said Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo. The region would be forced to "bid farewell to the European Union."

'Stun the world'

Regional Prime Minister Artur Mas called on demonstrators Wednesday to "stun the world."

"The message has been sent," said Mas. "If we are not given a way to channel this widespread patriotic movement, then I think the Spanish state has a serious problem with Catalonia."

The cross-country chain was designed to mimic The Baltic Chain that was formed across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1989 – two years before those countries obtained independence from the Soviet Union.

dr/ipj (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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