Violence erupts, hundreds hurt as Spain's police crack down on independence vote

Spanish riot police have stormed into polling stations across Catalonia, confiscating ballot boxes and voting papers to try to halt a banned referendum on a split from Spain as Madrid asserted its authority over the rebel region.

Police broke down doors on Sunday to force entry into voting stations as defiant Catalans shouted "Out with the occupying forces!" and sang the anthem of the wealthy northeastern region.

Catalan officials said 337 people had been injured in the police crackdown. Officers in riot gear hit people with batons, fired rubber bullets and forcibly removed would-be voters, including women and the elderly, from polling stations.

The referendum, declared illegal by Spain's central government, has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades and deepened a centuries-old rift between Madrid and Barcelona.

Despite the police action, hundreds-strong queues of people formed in cities and villages throughout the region to cast their votes. At one Barcelona polling station, elderly people and those with children entered first.

A demonstrator shouts at a Catalan regional policeman. Source: Getty

Police detain protestors after riots erupted on the streets across Catalonia. Source: Getty

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The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution.

A minority of around 40 per cent of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue. The region of 7.5 million people has an economy larger than that of Portugal.

However much voting takes place, a "yes" result is likely, given that most of those who support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not.

The Catalan government said voters could print out ballot papers at home and lodge them at any polling station not closed down by police.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont accused Spain of unjustified violence in stopping the vote and said it created a dreadful image of Spain.

"The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans' desire to vote ... but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today," he said.

The Madrid government said 11 police officers were injured in the clashes.

Nicola Sturgeon, the pro-independence leader of Scotland, which voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in a 2014 referendum, said she was concerned by the images she was seeing from Catalonia.

"Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed and call on Spain to change course before someone is seriously hurt," she said on Twitter.

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Officers in riot gear hit people with baton, fired rubber bullets and forcibly removed would-be voters. Source: Getty

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted: "Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue."

Around 70 polling stations had been raided by police, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said.

The aim of the raids was to seize referendum material and not to target people wanting to vote, another senior government official said.

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Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said police had acted in a proportionate manner.

"We have been made to do something we didn't want to do," said Enric Millo, the central government's representative in Catalonia, at a news conference.

A top-flight Spanish soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas on Sunday will be played without any supporters in the stadium because of the unrest, the Catalan club said.