Barcelona's soccer team joins huge strike over referendum

Firemen stand as they take part in a protest two days after the banned independence referendum near Parliament in Barcelona, Spain, October 3, 2017.

REUTERS

Last Updated Oct 3, 2017 10:58 AM EDT

BARCELONA, Spain -- Highways were blocked, schools closed and much business halted across Catalonia Tuesday as workers and students joined strikes and took to the streets to protest alleged brutality by police that left hundreds injured during a disputed referendum on Catalonia's secession

In the regional capital, Barcelona, where bus and subway services were affected, disoriented tourists scrambled to find open cafeterias to avoid the protests.

There were moments of tension when a handful of picketers forced the closure of shops that had remained open in the city's famed Las Ramblas boulevard, but elsewhere the demonstrations were largely peaceful.

Several labor unions and grassroots pro-independence groups had urged workers throughout Catalonia to go on partial or full-day strikes after the referendum that the Spanish government had deemed illegal and invalid.

"People are angry, very angry," said Josep Llavina, a 53 year old self-employed worker who had traveled to Barcelona from a nearby town to participate in the protest outside the police building.

"They brought violence with them. They have beaten people who were holding their hands up. How can we not be outraged?"

Demonstrators arrived by foot, walking along empty boulevards and streets closed off by municipal police as tourists watched from distance.

The strike was not backed by Spain's two main unions, the UGT and CCOO groups, and there were no reports of disruptions affecting big industry or Barcelona's airport, but Europe's favorite sport was impacted.

The famed Barcelona soccer club and the two other Catalan clubs in the Spanish soccer league joined the strike on Tuesday.

Barcelona said none of its professional or youth teams were practicing on Tuesday and the club headquarters was closed. The Girona soccer team also suspended practice and Espanyol was having players undergo physical training behind closed doors.

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, one of the most outspoken supporters of Catalans, was harassed by fans Monday when he reported to Spain's national team training camp in Madrid ahead of upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Police had to intervene as fans chanted and held cards against him.

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui told the COPE radio station the central defender remains motivated despite the abuse from fans. He praised Pique's commitment to the national team and said there was no reason not to have him on the squad.

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Barcelona and Spain defender Gerard Pique warms up before the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs UD Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, October 1, 2017.

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Spain's top official in Catalonia, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he laments the violence that left hundreds of civilians and police injured, but blames the regional separatist government for "exposing citizens to danger."

Enric Millo said Tuesday that "nothing of this would have happened if the government wouldn't have declared itself in rebellion, breaking the orders of the courts and lying and tricking people."

Back at ground level, 54-year-old town hall employee Jose Bolivar made his way to work, saying, "I disagree with the strike. In fact, at work nobody told me anything about a strike. So I decided to come."

Office worker Antonia Cuello, 37, was in two minds about the industrial action.

"On one side it is a hassle to try to get to work in the midst of a strike," she said. "We are suffering this because a few decided to behave in an improper way. On the other hand, I understand the circumstances surrounding the strike."

Port workers also held a demonstration outside the regional headquarters of Spain's ruling Popular Party, while firefighters planned a rally outside the Interior Ministry's regional office in Barcelona. Protests were also to be staged outside polling stations where police acted with force to try to prevent Sunday's poll being held.

More than 890 civilians were treated for injuries, most of them not serious, following clashes during Sunday's referendum, according to Catalan regional health authorities. Police using batons, and some firing rubber bullets, cleared protesters hoping to vote in the referendum. Spain's Interior Ministry says 431 National Police and Civil Guard agents were injured too.

The police action prompted criticism worldwide although the European Union and most governments backed Spain's stance in what is its most serious political crisis in decades.

Nigel Farage, one of the leaders in Britain's vote to leave the EU, condemned the bloc's failure to clearly condemn the police violence.

"It is quite extraordinary to realize that this Union is prepared to turn a blind eye," Farage told EU lawmakers.

Cyprus said Spain's national sovereignty and territorial integrity needed to be respected, arguing that the referendum on Catalonia's independence was carried out "in violation" of the Spanish constitution.

Turkey's foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu also said respect for Spain's territorial integrity was the main "principle," adding that it was important that both sides abide by Spain's laws and avoid violence.