Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets and seized ballot boxes from polling stations in Catalonia on Sunday as thousands flooded the streets to vote in an independence referendum banned by Madrid.
As the vote officially opened, scenes of chaos erupted as police began moving in to prevent people from casting their ballots, forcing their way into one sports centre in the town of Girona where the region’s separatist leader was due to vote.
Catalonian government spokesperson, Jordi Turull i Negre, said on Sunday afternoon that 337 people had visited hospital with injuries or bruises sustained in the violence, and urged any other wounded people to report themselves to Mossos. So far 91 have been confirmed to be injured, one of them with a serious eye injury.
Video footage from journalists on the ground appeared to show police firing rubber bullets at the crowd outside the Ramon Llull polling station in Barcelona. The newspaper La Vanguardia is reporting that a person is undergoing surgery due to an eye injury believed to have been caused by a rubber bullet.
Several people have suffered minor injuries, including cuts and bruises, as National Police and Guardia Civil security forces push their way through crowds of referendum supporters to access the interior of polling stations.
The Spanish interior ministry said Sunday afternoon that 11 police officers had been injured in Catalonia.
After widespread accusations of heavy-handed policing, the Spanish government’s top official in Catalonia said that security forces are acting “professionally”.
Spain’s interior ministry has asked people not to obstruct members of the security forces as they seize electoral material from polling stations across Catalonia, appealing for “cooperation and respect so that a direct court order can be enacted peacefully”.
“The National Police and the Guardia Civil have to take action. The objective is not people. I repeat, the aim of this action is not the people who have freely turned up to express their opinion. The objective is electoral material,” said Enric Millo, the central government’s chief representative in Catalonia.
“We find ourselves forced to do what we didn’t want to do,” he added, criticising the Catalan regional Mossos d’Esquadra force for its passivity in failing to evacuate or close electoral colleges occupied overnight.
Many polling stations reported that their IT systems have failed, meaning that they cannot access the electronic census the Catalan government said would allow all citizens to cast their vote in any district.
Police were also reported to be charging at groups of protestors who refused to allow them access to polling stations.
The drama unfolded after a night of tension in which thousands of people, both nervous and excited, had gathered outside polling stations before dawn to vote, with police under orders to prevent the ballot from happening.
“Votarem, votarem!” – Catalan for “We will vote!” – chanted the crowds, many with their hands in the air.
As the rain poured down in Barcelona, students and activists who had spent the night in schools designated as polling stations gathered outside with locals to “defend” the vote from police as cars drove by honking their horns in support.
Catalan television broadcast footage of crowds in towns and villages all over region, whose separatist government said early Sunday the referendum would go ahead as planned.
Although the region is divided over independence, most people want to vote on the matter in legal, binding plebiscite.
“The government today is in a position to affirm that we can celebrate the referendum of self-determination – not as we wanted, but (it will have democratic) guarantees,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told a news conference.