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Tens of thousands rally in Spain to avoid Catalan split

Tensions between Madrid and Barcelona have escalated since last week's disputed Catalan independence referendum. In response, thousands have joined demonstrations across Spain.

Tens of thousands of people joined protests across Spain on Saturday calling for an end to the political crisis that has rocked the country since Catalan authorities held a barred independence referendum last Sunday.

Spanish woman protests for dialogue in Madrid during Catalan independence crisis.

Tens of thousands joined the 'Let's Talk' protest in cities across Spain

In 50 cities, including Madrid and Barcelona, thousands of people gathered under the motto "Let's talk" and called for leaders from Madrid and Barcelona to enter peaceful negotiations to end the crisis. Organizers urged the crowds at both sites to wear white T-shirts and not to bring any Spanish or Catalan flags.

In Madrid, several thousand demonstrators descended on Colon Square with Spanish flags as part of a "patriotic" march demanding Spain stay united.

A week of turmoil

National leaders in Madrid and regional leaders in Barcelona have been locked in a tense standoff since Catalonia held an illegal independence referendum on October 1 marred by police brutality against voters.

Ninety percent of those who voted opted for independence, according to the official vote tally released by the Catalan government on Friday. But turnout was only 43 percent. The final figures approximated the preliminary results released immediately after the referendum.

Former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez on Saturday joined calls for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to invoke Article 155 of the constitution. The article is described as being "for exceptional cases only" such as when a region’s failure to obey laws "gravely damages Spain’s general interest." It has never been invoked before.

On Tuesday, Spain's King Felipe VI accused the Catalan authorities of "disloyalty" and said the central government needed to ensure "constitutional order." The king did not mention the police violence or those injured.

Spanien Madrid Demonstration gegen Unabbhähigkeit Kataloniens (Getty Images/AFP/J. Soriano)

Protesters gather holding Spanish flags during a demonstration against independence of Catalonia

The speech was widely interpreted as an endorsement of the course pursued by Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has dismissed the referendum as illegitimate and on Wednesday rejected calls for international mediation.

Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont had said during a televised speech on Wednesday that mediation was needed to solve the dispute. Puigdemont, who has threatened to declare independence in the coming days, is set to give a speech in the Catalan regional parliament next Tuesday.

Madrid has apologized to Catalans injured by police during the independence vote. "I can do nothing but regret it, apologize on behalf of the officers who intervened," Madrid's representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, said on Friday.

Secessionists in Catalonia have faced economic as well as political pressure to draw down pressure in recent days as large banks and foreign companies have said they will move their headquarters to other parts of Spain.

rc/jlw