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Captivated by Scottish independence vote, Spain's Catalans protest to demand their own

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BARCELONA, Spain — Hundreds of thousands of Catalans energized by Scotland's upcoming independence referendum protested Thursday for a secession vote aimed at carving out a new Mediterranean nation in what is now northeastern Spain.

The events illustrated how the Scottish vote in just one week is captivating breakaway minded Europeans in several countries.

Sporting bright yellow and red shirts representing the colors of the Catalonian flag emblazoned with the phrase "Now is the time," protesters in Barcelona shouted "Independencia!"

They crowded into two avenues that look like a "V'' from the air to signal their desire for a Catalonia independence referendum that the central government in Madrid insists would be illegal.

Just how many showed up was in dispute after the protest ended Thursday evening. Barcelona police said 1.8 million people participated but the Spanish Interior Ministry's regional office in Catalonia put the number at no more than 525,000, among them retired hospital director and economist Lluis Enric Florenca.

"If the Yes wins in Scotland, and it looks like it will be close, and Europe accepts it, they will accept Catalonia, which is bigger and in relation to Spain stronger than Scotland in relation to England," said Florenca, 65. "Catalonia is potentially much more powerful."

Catalonia regional leader Artur Mas said his government is not wavering from plans to hold a Nov. 9 referendum in the region of 7.6 million people, even though experts say any attempt is sure to be blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court. Mas has repeatedly said he won't call an illegal vote.

"This is a very powerful message we are sending to Europe and the world," Mas said. "Now is the moment to sit down and negotiate the terms for the Catalan people to be able to express themselves at the polls."

Polls have suggested that Scotland's independence vote on Sept. 18 is too close to call and that has captivated a wide variety of groups in addition to Catalan separatists. They include pro-independence Basques in northern Spain; Corsicans who want to break away from France; Italians from several northern regions; and Flemish speakers in Belgium demanding more autonomy, independence or union with the Netherlands.

"The dynamics at this point are with the Yes side, and if the Yes side actually wins it creates a strong precedent," said Hugh O'Donnell, a professor of cultural politics at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Unlike the Scottish ballot, a vote in Catalonia wouldn't result in secession. Mas' proposed referendum would ask Catalans whether they favor secession. If the answer is Yes, Mas says, that would give him a political mandate to negotiate a path toward independence.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block the vote because Spain's constitution doesn't allow referendums that don't include all Spaniards, but Mas told reporters that would be a mistake.

"The Catalan issue is one of the biggest issues the Spanish government is facing," Mas said. "It is an error to try and solve this through legal means. Political problems are solved through politics, not with legal threats."

If Madrid refuses to allow an independence vote, a go-ahead by Mas could put him in perilous legal terrain. When the northern Basque region failed to obtain permission for a similar referendum in 2005, Spain said Basque leaders could face jail if they went ahead.

PHOTO: People hold torches during a march for the independence of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. After years of mass protests by Catalans demanding the right to decide whether they want to break away from Spain and form a new European nation, the wealthy northeastern region’s lawmakers are voting to ask permission from Spanish authorities to hold a secession referendum in November. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
People hold torches during a march for the independence of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. After years of mass protests by Catalans demanding the right to decide whether they want to break away from Spain and form a new European nation, the wealthy northeastern region’s lawmakers are voting to ask permission from Spanish authorities to hold a secession referendum in November. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

The next step for Mas comes the day after Scotland's vote, when the Catalan parliament is expected to approve a measure giving him the power to call a referendum. Rajoy's government is then expected to ask Spain's Constitutional Court to rule the vote illegal and experts believe the court will do so.

If that happens and Mas decides to obey the ruling, he could hold Catalan regional elections as an unofficial referendum, with parties obliged to state where they stand on independence.

Despite sharing cultural traits with the rest of Spain, many Catalans take pride in the deep differences based on their language, which is spoken side-by-side with Spanish in the wealthy region that is key to helping Spain emerge from its financial crisis.

Polls indicate Catalans are roughly evenly split on independence — but that figure drops significantly when people are asked if they favor an independent Catalonia outside the European Union.

Call center administrator Monica Casares, 43, from the Catalan city of Badalona, wants to be able to vote in a referendum but is undecided about independence. She says that's because of uncertainty about whether her small children would be better off in an independent Catalonia or as Spanish citizens in the 28-nation EU.

Her husband, an independence supporter, is energized.

"He's thrilled because he thinks a Yes vote in Scotland would give more legitimacy to the independence drive in Catalonia," Casares said.

Catalonia's attempt to hold a referendum and the vote in Scotland have strong support from the Basque pro-independence coalition Bildu, which won 25 percent of the Basque region's vote in the 2012 regional election.

"Catalonia and Scotland have again put the issue of the peoples' right to decide on the political stage, showing that this is an open question in Europe," said Pello Urizar, leader of one party in the Bildu coalition.

In Italy, the leader of the Northern League party that supports independence or greater autonomy for several northern regions said his supporters "are rooting for the separatists" because independence for Scotland would send a message to the EU that other European separatists deserve the right to vote on their future.

"We are hoping that (Scotland) goes through, because it would give a breath of fresh air to a campaign that doesn't end in Scotland but continues in Catalonia and will arrive in Veneto," he said, referring to Italy's northern Veneto region.

Despite the euphoria, political scientists have found that separatism in one country doesn't promote separatism in another, said Jason Sorens, a government professor at Dartmouth College.

"If Scotland votes Yes and the negotiation process goes smoothly, and Scotland gets into the EU quickly, that might boost secessionist support because it would show the risks of independence are lower," he said. "It could go the other way, if the transition involves a lot of cost."


Alan Clendenning reported from Madrid. Associated Press writers Jorge Sainz in Madrid and Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, contributed to this story.

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PHOTO: A man sits in his wheelchair as he covers himself with an “estelada” flag, that symbolizes Catalonia's independence, in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept 11, 2014. A week before Scotland votes on whether to break away from the United Kingdom, separatists in northeastern Spain were trying to convince hundreds of thousands to protest across Catalonia to demand a secession sentiment vote that the central government in Madrid insists would be illegal. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
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