(Last Updated On: October 16, 2019)

By Joan Faus

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Pro-independence groups began protest marches in Catalonia on Wednesday against the jailing of nine separatist leaders, despite a new warning by the Spanish government that it will step in if needed to guarantee security.

The government reiterated that it would act “firmly and in a proportional manner” to keep order after protesters threw cans, stones and flares at riot police and set garbage cans ablaze in unusually tense confrontations in Barcelona, the regional capital. Thirty people were arrested.

Protesters blocked roads and cut train service across the northeastern region after the Catalan leaders were sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison on Monday over their role in a failed attempt to break away from Spain in 2017.

After their sentencing, Spain’s Supreme Court issued a European arrest warrant for Catalonia’s former leader, Carles Puigdemont, who lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

The Brussels prosecutor’s office said on Wednesday it had received the request. Belgium rejected two earlier extradition requests and a spokeswoman for the prosecutor said it may take weeks to reach a decision on the new request.

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The warrant was submitted in Spanish. The law requires that it be sent in one of Belgium’s national languages or English so Spain will send a new one next week, the spokeswoman said.

Catalan separatism has long prided itself on being a peaceful movement and its leaders say that has not changed, despite the unrest. Raul Romeva and Carles Mundo, two of the Catalan leaders who were on trial, condemned the violence.

“No violence represents us,” Romeva, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison, wrote on Twitter.

Mundo, who was found guilty of disobedience but not sentenced to prison, wrote on Twitter: “Independence cannot become a problem of public order; It is a democratic, civic and peaceful movement.”

Catalonia’s independence drive triggered Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades in 2017. It still dominates the fractured political debate as the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy heads for an election on Nov. 10.

The Spanish government’s reaction to the secessionist moves is being watched closely in other European countries where there are independence movements such as Scotland.

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Theoretically, losing Catalonia would deprive Spain of about 16% of its population of around 47 million, around a fifth of its economic output and more than a quarter of its exports.

All main Spanish political parties firmly oppose Catalan independence and all but the far-left Podemos reject even holding a referendum.

MARCHES TO BARCELONA

In the latest protest action, pro-independence crowds set off from several municipalities on Catalonia on marches called by two groups, Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural, which have organised many peaceful protests over the past years.

They were not the organisers of the protests that turned violent on Tuesday.

The marchers plan to reach Barcelona on Friday, when supporters of independence and local labour unions have called for a general strike and demonstrations in Catalonia.

Segments of two major highways, several streets in central Barcelona and a high speed train route remained blocked off on Wednesday because of damages from the protests and because of the planned marches, central and regional authorities said.

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Protests began peacefully in Barcelona on Tuesday but clashes later broke out with riot police. Health officials said on Twitter that first aid had been provided to 125 people and regional police said 43 officers were hurt.

“A minority is trying to impose violence in the streets of Catalan cities,” Spain’s acting government, in place until next month’s election, said in a statement.

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told Catalan public broadcaster TV3 that Madrid was watching the situation in Catalonia closely and would intervene if necessary. But he said: “As of today, we don’t need to set people on edge.”

He called on regional Catalan leader Quim Torra to condemn the use of violence. After Tuesday’s protests, the regional government said Torra was meeting officials in his government.

(Additional reporting by Belén Carreño and Jose Elías Rodríguez, and by Marine Strauss in Brussels, Writing by Ashifa Kassam, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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