SPAIN has been accused of "opening the door to repression" after paramilitary police detained 14 people organising next month's Catalan independence referendum.

Armed agents of the Guardia Civil stormed government ministries in Barcelona early on Wednesday, sparking condemnation from civic and political leaders across Catalonia's constitutional divide.

The speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, said the raids and arrested "open the door to repression" and were a "flagrant violation of the rights of citizens".

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She said: "We are not afraid. We will stay united in the face of attacks and we will respond peacefully." 

The pro-independence president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, said: "Spain has cross the red line which separates it from totalitarian regimes and turned itself in to a democratic disgrace." 

Crucially, warnings from Mr Puigdement and Ms Forcadell were echoed by voices not directly involved in campaigning for the independence referendum. 

The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, a campaigner on poverty and housing rather than independence, issued a strong warning to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy: "If you go on like this you will find a community more united than ever before."

Ada Colau

HeraldScotland: Housing campaigner Ada Colau was elected mayor of Barcelona

One of the men arrested was Josep Maria Jové, the effectively the No2 of Catalonia's vice president, Oriol Junqueras, of the SNP's formal political allies Esquerra Republicana. Mr Jové was expected to appear in court later Wednesday on a writ of habeas corpus.

The arrests and raids come as tensions escalate between the two Iberian nations - and among Catalans themselves - ahead of a planned but banned plebiscite on October 1.

Spain argues that the vote is unconstitutional and that any preparations for it must therefore be illegal.

Its unionist politicians have refused to engage in a debate despite polls suggesting that they had every chance of convincing Catalans to remain in Spain.

Today Scottish expert Michael Keating warned that the crackdown - the Guardia Civil raids are just the latest and gravest attempt to stop the vote - would drive devolutionists in to the hands of the "independentistes"

Prof Keating, of the Centre on Constitutional Change, said: "Catalans’ views on the proposed independence referendum differ.

"Some are completely in favour and will vote Yes. Others believe that Catalonia has the right to have a say on its own future but would vote No. A few support the Spanish Government’s stance, that any kind of vote on independence is out of the question.

"The Spanish Government’s actions may have the effect of uniting the first and second groups."

A group of socialist mayors from the county of Baix Llobregat, just southwest of Barcelona, urged Spanish authorities to return to dialogue. Their party, the sometimes federalist PSC, is roughly the equivalent of Scottish Labour.

Catalonia's association of actors and its totemic football club, Barcelona, added to those from civil society voicing concern.

Barcelona, a bastion of traditional Catalanismo, or support for Catalan identity, language and culture, said it condemned any attempt to "impede" democratic rights.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy said his conservative government is determined to prevent the ballot.

Mariano Rajoy

HeraldScotland:

He said the Catalan government is going against the Spanish constitution by holding the vote and that, "logically, the state has to act".

Mr Rajoy added: "No democratic state in the world would accept what these people are proposing."

His stance has the backing of most Spanish opposition parties. 

The Guardia Civil raids provoked mass street protests. After around 10 hours volunteers were distributing food and water. 

Catalonia's own police force, the Mossos, issued a statement on Twitter stressing that its officers were in the streets to provide security. The force was not involved in the raids.

In Madrid, on Wednesday evening there were confrontations between rival groups in the capital's central Puerta del Sol square with rightest Spanish nationalists chanting "Arriba España", the slogan of far-right dictator Francisco Franco. Counter-protestors, complaining about Mr Rajoy's crackdown, yelled back "Fascist Vermin".

The Constitutional Court has ordered the vote to be suspended as it studies its legality, but Catalan officials said they will press ahead regardless. 

Spain's interior ministry has cancelled time off and scheduled leave for Civil Guard and National Police officers who are being deployed to ensure the ballot does not happen. It gave no details on the number of agents involved.

In another tightening of the screw, Spain's finance ministry said it has imposed further controls over the Catalan government's finances to ensure no public money is used for the referendum.

Finance minister Cristobal Montoro signed an order late on Tuesday that limits new credit and requires central authorities' supervision for every payment of non-essential services in Catalonia, the ministry said.

The measure means that virtually all the Catalan public spending will be in the hands of Madrid. The finance ministry took over the direct payment of basic services such as education, health and civil servants' salaries last week.

President Puigdemont and his deputy Junqueras march 

HeraldScotland:

Mr Puigdemont claimed this move by central government has effectively ended Catalonia's self-rule. The nation, like othe devolved regions in Spain, has broad self-governing powers.

Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain's economy.
The country's 7.5 million inhabitants overwhelmingly favour a referendum, but are estimated to be evenly divided over independence.

Analysis from Michael Keating: Spain, Catalonia locked in dispute they can't win

Catalans’ views on the proposed independence referendum differ. Some are completely in favour and will vote Yes. Others believe that Catalonia has the right to have a say on its own future but would vote No. A few support the Spanish Government’s stance, that any kind of vote on independence is out of the question.

The Spanish Government’s actions may have the effect of uniting the first and second groups.

It is going well beyond the constitution’s provisions that Spain is indivisible to say, in effect, that even debating the matter in official forums is impermissible.

Spain is not merely declaring that an independence vote would not have legal effect, but physically preventing it from happening and even clamping down in publicity on both the streets and the internet.

It is taking legal action against elected and appointed officials. While it has not suspended the elected Catalan government (which would require a parliamentary majority it does not have) it is trying to take direct control of its finances and main responsibilities.

This will worry many people in Spain, including many who regard the referendum gambit itself as unwise and provocative.

In the 1990s, Spain faced a terrorist threat from the violent Basque group, ETA and took strong action. It came under criticism, however, for clamping down not just on ETA but also on its wider entourage and associated political parties, effectively depriving radical nationalism of a democratic outlet. In the Catalan case, there is no terrorist threat but a purely political movement seeking to achieve its ends through the ballot box.

Michael Keating

HeraldScotland:

Among the ironies of all this is that, according to polls, an independence referendum would almost certainly lose and, win or lose, would more likely to lead to a compromise settlement acceptable to the Catalan mainstream than a complete rupture.

Since the transition to democracy 40 years ago, the Catalan way has been that of political negotiation and gradual advance. Now the Spanish and Catalan governments, neither with a convincing mandate, are locked into a confrontation that neither can win.

Prof Keating is director of the Centre on Constitutional Change