Custody sought for Catalan separatists grilled in Madrid

Madrid (AFP) - Spanish prosecutors called Thursday for eight former separatist members of Catalonia's deposed government, including its vice-president, to be detained, on another day of high drama in the region's independence drive.

The demand came as they were grilled in Madrid over their role in Catalonia's rollercoaster secession push -- although Catalonia's axed leader Carles Puigdemont refused to turn up in court and remains holed up in Belgium.

Puigdemont and 19 others had been summoned by Spanish judges for separate hearings at the National Court and the Supreme Court on Thursday and Friday, accused of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

The hearing at the Supreme Court was quickly adjourned until November 9 following a request from lawyers to be given more time to prepare their defence, but proceedings at the National Court continued.

Prosecutors there made a request for eight former government members who showed up to be placed in preventive detention, the court said.

They asked for the ninth to be freed if he pays a bond.

Like Puigdemont, four other former ministers who had been summoned stayed away. They face arrest warrants, international ones if necessary.

- Adding 'fuel' to fire -

As they arrived at the court on Thursday, the former Catalan leaders were greeted by cheering supporters but booed by opponents brandishing red-and-yellow Spanish flags nearby.

"You are not alone," a group of around 30 people, mostly Catalan lawmakers, chanted as the former regional ministers ran the gauntlet of a mass of photographers and TV crews.

"The conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish state won't be resolved through courts and violence," said former Catalan president Artur Mas, in Madrid to show his support.

"The more fuel and wood you add to the fire, the bigger it becomes."

Catalan demands for independence date back centuries but have surged in recent years, in part due to a difficult economic situation that has made many unhappy about Catalans' taxes being syphoned to Madrid.

Puigdemont's government organised an independence referendum on October 1 despite a court ban.

Spanish police tried and failed to stop it, in some cases firing rubber bullets at people defending polling stations.

A declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament followed last Friday, greeted by celebrations on the streets of Barcelona.

But that same day, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government dismissed the regional government and imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous northeastern region.

He also called fresh Catalan elections for December 21.

- 'Impartial' -

Puigdemont, 54, said in a statement from Belgium that some members of his government would go to the National Court "to denounce the drive of Spanish justice to pursue political ideas".

But others, including himself, "will stay in Brussels to decry this political process to the international community".

It was not clear how coordinated they were, however.

Javier Melero, the lawyer of two of the parliamentary members under investigation, said Puigdemont should have turned up to court.

The former Catalan leader nevertheless retains the support of many in Catalonia, whose people are fiercely proud of their language and culture.

On Wednesday, several hundred separatist supporters accompanied some of those due to appear in the Madrid court to Barcelona's main train station, chanting "liberty" and "you are not alone".

- Divided -

But still Catalans remain deeply divided about independence, polls indicate.

The European Union, several members of which such as Italy have disgruntled regions of their own, has swung firmly behind Rajoy.

Uncertainty about Catalonia's future has prompted almost 2,000 companies to move their legal headquarters outside the region.

In addition, there are signs of growing divisions in the separatist camp, with many unhappy with Puigdemont, particularly now he is hundreds of miles away.

"We have worked hard. We have collaborated as much as we could," said Oscar Jansana, a farmer in the Catalan village of Dosrius with a separatist flag -- red and yellow stripes with a white star -- outside his house.

"And in the end we have ended up worse off than we were before."