Madrid (AFP) - Spain was plunged into crisis Friday as Madrid seized power from independence-seeking Catalonia, the first curtailment of regional autonomy since the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
After regional lawmakers voted to declare a Catalan "republic", Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy moved swiftly to dissolve the rebel government and parliament, and called December 21 elections to replace them.
In an escalating standoff closely watched by secession-wary Europe, Rajoy fired pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont and all his ministers as well as the director of the regional police, and Catalan envoys to Madrid and Brussels, to halt what he termed an "escalation of disobedience."
Secessionist lawmakers voted 70 to 10 in the 135-member parliament Friday to declare Catalonia "a republic in the form of an independent and sovereign state".
They take their mandate from the "Yes" result in a banned and unregulated October 1 independence referendum spurned by many more than half of Catalan electors.
Observers warned of trouble ahead, with Catalan officials and public servants likely to defy orders from caretaker envoys sent by the central government.
"Tensions are likely to rise significantly over the coming days," suggested Teneo Intelligence, a risk analysis group.
"Demonstrators might try to prevent the police from removing Catalan ministers from their offices... This increases the risk of violent clashes," it said in a statement.
- 'Demolished democracy' -
The region of some 7.5 million people accounts for about 16 percent of Spain's population, a fifth of its economic output, and attracts more tourists than anywhere else in the country.
Catalonia´s inhabitants are fiercely protective of their language, culture and autonomy -- restored after a long period of oppression during nationalist Franco´s 1936-1979 rule.
In Barcelona, separatists broke out in ecstatic shouts of: "Independence!" and popped bottles of cava, a Catalan sparkling wine, as the outcome of Friday´s vote was announced. Separatist MPs cheered and embraced before singing the Catalan anthem.
But any cause for joy was soon nipped in the bud, and shares in Spanish companies, particularly Catalan banks, dropped sharply as the crisis deepened.
"We Spaniards are living through a sad day in which a lack of reason prevailed upon the law and demolished democracy in Catalonia," Rajoy said as he announced steps to "restore normality".
The sweeping measures were approved by the Senate Friday under a constitutional article designed to rein in rebels among Spain's 17 regions.
Madrid's allies in the European Union and the United States rallied behind Madrid as they voiced alarm over developments in Spain´s worst political crisis in decades.
European Council President Donald Tusk said Madrid "remains our only interlocutor" following the independence vote.
"I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force," he tweeted
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