Catalan separatist leader campaigns over border in France to avoid arrest in Spain

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

ARGELES-SUR-MER, France (Reuters) - A Catalan separatist leader, running to regain the presidency of the restive Spanish region, is bussing supporters to his election rallies over the border in France because an arrest warrant prevents him from entering Spain.

Carles Puigdemont faces arrest in Spain over the crimes of misuse of public funds and disobedience for his role in Catalonia's 2017 independence referendum, which had been banned by Spanish courts.

Puigdemont, then regional president of Catalonia, oversaw a short-lived declaration of Catalan independence after the vote, before fleeing to Belgium in the face of a crackdown by national authorities. Puigdemont denied the charges against him, saying his actions were legal.

Now he is seeking to return to the presidency of the affluent northeastern region in Sunday's election, and running a close second to the candidate of Spain's governing Socialists, who oppose Catalan independence.

Puigdemont is waging an unconventional campaign, staging rallies in the French town of Argeles-sur-Mer, near the Spanish border.

His separatist Junts party has arranged a fleet of buses for supporters to travel from Catalonia to Argeles, a town of 10,000 people some 26 km (16 miles) north of the border with Catalonia.

Chanting "Independence" and holding separatist flags, several dozen enthusiastic sympathisers filled a bus on Tuesday that had Puigdemont's face emblazoned on its side and the motto "Catalonia needs leadership".

Sixty-one-year-old Joana hopped on the bus in the Catalan town of Lleida because, she said, "Puigdemont is my president and we will win".

There are at least six buses daily from Catalonia for supporters to go to Argeles, and some days up to 14, according to Junts spokesperson.

Puigdemont plans to return to Spain soon thanks to a disputed amnesty bill put forward by the national government that would expunge the police records of Catalan separatists after Catalan parties gave Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez the key votes to form a government last year.

Puigdemont has said he will renew a push for Catalan independence if he regains the regional presidency. If he does not, he said, he might withdraw support for the national, Socialist-led government if the next Catalan ruling coalition is one he cannot accept.

The amnesty bill is expected to be approved by parliament and take force in late May or early June, potentially coinciding with the formation of the next Catalan government.

(Reporting by Nacho Doce and Joan Faus, Editing by Aislinn Laing and Mark Heinrich)