Catalans occupy polling stations ahead of contested vote

Barcelona (AFP) - Supporters of an independence referendum in Catalonia opposed by Madrid occupied would-be polling stations on Friday in a bid to ensure the vote goes ahead, as thousands gathered in Barcelona for the separatist camp's closing campaign.

In one of the biggest crises to hit Spain since democracy was restored after the death of Franco in 1975, the referendum has pitched the wealthy northeastern region against central government and sown divisions among Catalans themselves.

Authorities in Madrid have instructed police to ensure no votes are cast in Sunday's vote.

A court on Wednesday ordered police to prevent the use of public buildings "for the preparation and organisation" of the referendum.

But as classes ended for the day, small groups of activists, including parents with their children, on Friday peacefully occupied several schools in Barcelona where voting is scheduled to take place.

"I am going to sleep here, with my oldest son who is a student here," Gisela Losa, a mother of three, told AFP at Reina Vionant primary school in Barcelona's fashionable Gracia neighbourhood, where pro-independence sentiment runs high.

The occupations appeared to be partly coordinated by a platform of "schools open for the referendum" which distributed a manual via social networks with instruction on how to occupy buildings and guarantee they are available to serve as polling stations.

- Cinema and dance classes -

On Friday evening, around 10,000 supporters of the referendum gathered off Barcelona's Placa d'Espanya, or Spain Square, as separatist leaders closed their campaign for the vote.

"In these hugely intense and hugely emotional moments, we sense that what we once thought was only a dream is within reach," Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont told a cheering crowd.

"On Sunday, we have a date with the future."

Many of them waved the "Esteleda" -- the separatists' flag of red-and-yellow stripes with a white star on a blue chevron.

But quite a different scene played out just six kilometres (3.5 miles) away in the town of L'Hospitalet de Llobregat.

There, some 2,000 people who oppose separating from Spain rallied at a meeting called by Ciudadanos, Catalonia's main opposition party.

They waved Spanish and EU flags, as well as the "Senyera" -- the official Catalan flag of plain red-and-yellow stripes.

"This is a dead end, they want to destroy the state, Spain and Catalonia," said Dolores Molero, a 53-year-old secretary from Tarragona, a city further south.

Madrid has repeatedly warned those who help stage a referendum which the courts have ruled unconstitutional that they face repercussions.

On Friday, Spain's education ministry said in a statement that school directors in Catalonia "were not exempt from liability" if they cooperated.

But Jordi Sanchez, the president of the Catalan National Assembly, an influential pro-independence organisation, told AFP the court order said public spaces could not be used for the referendum on Sunday "but it did not say anything about leisure activities today and Saturday."

"We have proposed that citizens organise activities, that they put in place a lot of activities to give life to these spaces which on Sunday should host the referendum."

Barcelona's Joan Brassa high school, for instance, advertised a series of activities for Friday and Saturday, including movie screenings, football matches and Zumba dance fitness classes.

Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull said there would be "2,315 polling stations all over the region" for the vote. It was not immediately clear how many potential polling stations were being occupied.

Police have for days been seizing electoral items such as ballot papers as they follow orders to stop the referendum while prosecutors ordered the closure of websites linked to the vote and the detention of key members of the team organising the referendum.

- Travel warnings -

Polls show the 7.5 million people of Catalonia are split on independence, but a large majority want to vote in a legitimate referendum to settle the matter.

With firefighters and farmers vowing to protect polling stations, Catalonia's regional police force, the Mossos d'Esquadra, have warned of the risk of "disruption of public order" if they try to prevent people from casting ballots.

In case they resist, Madrid has sent thousands of extra police officers from other forces to Catalonia -- which accounts for one fifth of Spain's economy -- to help suppress the referendum it deems illegal.

Central government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said he was "completely certain" that the Mossos would "obey the law and the judge's orders" because they "are subject to the law like everyone else".

"I insist that there will be no referendum," he said.

Concerned, though, several European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, urged their nationals in Catalonia to exercise caution ahead of the referendum.