Hundreds of Catalans injured as Spanish police violently suppress referendum voting
More than 460 people have been injured in Catalonia by Spanish police, the Catalonia mayor announced on Sunday.
Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets and forced their way into activist-held polling stations in Catalonia as thousands turned out to vote in an independence referendum, which Madrid has banned.
Footage showed police attacking unarmed crowds with batons and throwing protesters down stairs, with men and women, young and old the target of violence.
Catalan's department of health said 465 have been injured as they were prevented from taking to the polls, in what the Spanish central government branded a "farce" referendum.
The violence further heightened tensions between Madrid and the authorities in Catalonia in the worst political crisis the country has witnessed in decades.
"Spanish democracy faces its greatest challenge," headlined Spanish newspaper El Pais just hours before police moved in en masse to seal off polling stations and seize ballot boxes with the aim of shutting down the referendum.
In the second such vote in three years, more than 5.3 million people were called on to have their say on independence from Spain in the wealthy north-eastern region which has its own distinct language and culture.
The crackdown drew a sharp rebuke from Catalan.
"The unjustified use of violence, which is both irrational and irresponsible, by the Spanish state will not stop the will of the Catalan people," Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said.
The police had used "batons, rubber bullets and indiscriminate force" against people demonstrating "peacefully", he added.
"The head of a cowardly government has flooded our city with police," Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau tweeted.
Although Catalans are divided over the vote for independence, most want to vote on the matter through a legal and binding referendum.
Separatist advocate lawmakers in Catalonia have pushed for an independence referendum since September 2015 when they won a narrow majority in the region's parliament.
Although Catalonia already has significant control over education, healthcare and welfare, the Autonomous Community says it pays more in taxes than it receives from Madrid.
This has sparked resentment which has been further exacerbated by Spain's economic blow and helped popularise the secessionist discourse.
The Catalan government says independence would leave the region richer and more-able to protect its language and culture.
The referendum law foresees a declaration of independence within 48 hours of a 'Yes' vote. But it remains unclear what the regional government will actually do so, although whatever happens, the outcome will not be recognised by Madrid.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has come under fire for limiting its response to the crisis to repeating that the referendum is unconstitutional.