The Spanish government said Thursday it would begin the process to impose direct rule on Catalonia in an unprecedented move to crush the region's independence bid.
In a statement from Madrid, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said it would invoke Article 155 of the constitution, a provision that allows the central government to suspend the autonomy of the Catalan regional administration.
Rajoy's Cabinet will meet on Saturday to agree measures to "restore the constitutional order" in Catalonia, where a banned referendum on independence took place earlier this month. The plan will then be put before the Senate, where Rajoy's Popular Party has a majority, for approval.
The statement did not spell out what steps would be taken under Article 155, but the provision gives Madrid the power to take over the running of Catalan institutions and force new elections. It has never been invoked before.
The announcement came minutes after Catalan President Carles Puigdemont threatened that the region could formally declare independence if the Spanish government did not engage in dialogue.
Puigdemont also demanded Spain end its "repression" of Catalan separatist leaders, in a letter sent shortly before a Madrid-imposed deadline for the region to drop its independence bid. Two leaders of the Catalan independence movement were taken into custody on suspicion of sedition earlier this week.
"Despite all our efforts and our will for dialogue, the fact that your only answer is canceling our autonomy indicates that that you do not understand the problem and do not wish to talk," Puigdemont wrote.
If Madrid "insists in avoiding dialogue and continuing with oppressive measures." the Catalan parliament reserved the right to formalize the a declaration of independence that was suspended on October 10, he said.
At that session, Puigdemont said that Catalonia had "earned the right" to become an independent republic in its October 1 independence referendum, which was banned by Spain's Constitutional Court. But he suspended the effects of the declaration to allow for talks.
More than 2.25 million people turned out to cast their ballot in the referendum, with the regional government reporting that 90% of voters were in favor of a split from Madrid. But the turnout was low -- around 43% of the voter roll -- which Catalan officials blamed on the central government's efforts to stop the vote.
Violent scenes unfolded as national police sought to prevent people from casting their ballots, leaving hundreds of people injured.
The Spanish government opened sedition investigations into two Catalan separatist leaders, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, and the head of the Catalan police force, Josep Lluís Trapero.
Sanchez and Cuixart were taken into custody earlier this week, while Trapero's passport was confiscated.
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