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Spain's King Felipe: Catalan leaders 'irresponsible,' state must ensure 'constitutional order'

Spain's King Felipe took aim at Catalan leaders denouncing their independence vote as a threat to national stability. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has said Catalonia will declare independence in a "matter of days."

Watch video 02:07

Spain's king takes sides in the Catalan secession crisis

Spanish King Felipe VI said Tuesday evening that he was committed to the country's "unity and permanence" and strongly condemned Catalan leaders for holding a referendum on independence that he said undermined the rule of law.

In a rare televised speech to the nation, the 49-year-old king said the conduct of Catalan authorities was "irresponsible" and had undermined social cohesion in the Spanish region and challenged Spanish democratic institutions.

"Today, Catalan society is fractured and confronted," Felipe said, adding that "very serious moments for our democratic life" had occurred since Sunday's contentious vote.

The king said the monarchy was dedicated to the Spanish constitution and that "it is the responsibility of the legitimate state powers to ensure constitutional order."

Watch video 03:30

Spanish King addresses the nation — how will Catalans react? Stephen Burgen from Barcelona

The speech did not directly mention the crackdown by Spanish police against polling stations during Sunday's referendum on Catalan independence, which was banned by the Constitutional Court.

Catalan authorities said 893 people were injured, four badly, as police raided the voting sites, swinging truncheons and firing rubber bullets. Some 431 police officers were also reported hurt, the country's Interior Ministry reported.

Ninety percent of voters backed independence in the referendum with turnout just over 42 percent, according to Catalan authorities.

Puigdemont: Catalonia to declare independence within 'matter of days'

In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, Puigdemont said Catalonia would declare independence "in a matter of days," implementing the directive of Sunday's banned referendum in defiance of Madrid.

Catalonia's regional president said his government would "act at the end of this week or the beginning of next." When pressed what he would do if the Spanish government intervened and seized control of the regional government, Puigdemont simply said it would be "an error which changes everything."

Demonstrators in Barcelona, Catalonia

Pro-independence groups took to the streets before the king's speech to protest police violence.

Hundreds of thousands protest in Barcelona

Metro stations were closed and main roads blocked by pickets in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, on Tuesday after hundreds of thousands of people joined a strike to protest Spanish police's crackdown of Sunday's unauthorized referendum on Catalonia's secession from Spain.

City authorities estimated that 700,000 demonstrators took part in the protest that several labor unions and other pro-independence groups had called for after Sunday's clashes.

Authorities said 24 different protests were blocking several roads and motorways, with vehicles queuing for up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in some cases.

Public transport services in Barcelona were sharply cut back, while the FC Barcelona football club suspended training in support of the strike. Several important tourist sites, including the Sagrada Familia basilica and the contemporary art museum, were also closed.

The strike forced SEAT, the German-owned car company, to stop production at one of its factories 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Barcelona.

Demonstrations in Barcelona, Catalonia

City authorities estimated that some 300,000 people took part in demonstrations throughout Barcelona on Tuesday.

Two of Spain's biggest unions, the UGT and CCOO, told their workers they could decide for themselves whether to join the strike to protest police violence. Both unions have spoken out against Catalan independence and have called for dialogue between the central government in Madrid and Catalonia to resolve the constitutional crisis.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has defended the police actions, saying they were necessary to stop an unauthorized ballot.

On Tuesday, Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria criticized Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and said the central government was defending the rule of law.

"I've seen how President Puigdemont has flooded the streets with his followers to stop people obeying the law and to make them disrespect justice," she said. "We are here to defend the rights and liberties of all Spaniards that have been trampled upon by the regional government."

Catalan leader calls for international mediation

President Puigdemont has called on the European Union to mediate between Madrid and Barcelona.

The EU, which remained virtually silent on the Catalan issue for weeks, will hold a special debate on Wednesday on the matter.

Despite the referendum result, any unilateral declaration of independence is likely to be opposed not only by Madrid but also by many in the Catalan population, which is deeply divided on the issue.

If Catalonia were to secede, it would have severe economic repercussions for Spain, with the wealthy northeastern region accounting for a fifth of the country's GDP.

Watch video 03:47

Catalonia on strike: Fanny Facsar from Barcelona

amp, tj/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)

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