Clandestine 'tsunami' behind new wave of Catalan protests

Daniel BOSQUE
The blocking of Barcelona's El Prat airport was the most disruptive protest to date by the modern Catalan separatist movement (AFP Photo/LLUIS GENE)

Barcelona (AFP) - With an appeal to block Barcelona's airport, a new, mysterious organisation called "Democratic Tsunami" has raised the temperature of Catalan separatist protests in Spain which until now have been peaceful.

The leaders of the movement remain unknown, using social media and encrypted messaging apps to rally thousands of supporters on Monday against jail terms meted out to nine separatist leaders over their role in a failed 2017 secession bid.

Some 10,000 people, according to Spain's interior ministry, blocked access to Barcelona airport for several hours on Monday, heeding widespread calls on social media to "Turn Catalonia into the new Hong Kong".

It was the most disruptive protest held to date by the modern Catalan separatist movement: 110 flights were cancelled and 115 people were injured during clashes with police.

"This is just the beginning, we have to prepare for what is coming and ensure the democratic tsunami is unstoppable," the group wrote in a tweet late Monday after the airport protest made headlines around the world.

The tone contrasts with the festive style of the first mass pro-independence rallies staged nearly a decade ago by influential grass-roots separatist associations ANC and Omnium which dubbed their movement the "revolution of smiles".

- 'Urban guerrilla war' -

But after the failure of the 2017 separatist bid which culminated with a banned referendum followed by a declaration of independence, a part of the separatist camp understood that "this revolution of smiles did not end well", said historian and political analyst Joan Esculies.

"The Democratic Tsunami wants to lead a sort of urban guerrilla war with one-off actions," he added.

Caught off guard by the size of the airport protest, Spain's media and central government are looking into who is behind the new movement.

"I have no doubt we will end up finding out who's behind Democratic Tsunami," Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told public radio RNE on Tuesday.

The group first appeared on social media in September as a campaign to mobilise separatists ahead of the Supreme Court's verdicts in the trial of the separatist leaders on the basis of "civil disobedience" and a "non-violent struggle".

Its creation came a day after several separatist leaders met in Switzerland, including Catalonia's former regional president Carles Puigdemont, raising suspicion that the movement was created by Catalan separatist parties.

Democratic Tsunami strongly denies it.

- Guardiola support -

The movement "brings together people of different sensibilities... but it is not controlled by any entity or party. Even if they are informed of how it is structured," one of its organisers told AFP.

The leaders of the movement usually issue their directions to supporters through Russian-designed encrypted messaging service Telegram, where they have 150,000 followers.

The movement on Monday launched its own mobile app to distribute messages. To use it a QR, or quick response code, is needed and it can only be obtained from a member of the organisation.

It also put its name to a video message recorded in English by Manchester City football club's Catalan coach, Pep Guardiola, in which he accused Spain of drifting "towards authoritarianism".

In its tweet, the group said Guardiola's statement had been broadcast by AFP, which is not true.

The group also launched an appeal to block Madrid airport with 1,200 vehicles and claimed that the operation was a success although Spanish airport authority AENA and other officials said there was no disruption.