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Riot police operations called off early after outcry over violence in Catalonia

Original orders had officers entering polling stations even during ballot recounts, sources say

Many of the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard riot officers deployed in Catalonia on Sunday were ordered to withdraw in advance without reinforcements being called in, police sources have told EL PAÍS. The units were meant to escort colleagues charged with seizing voting material designed for use in the region’s independence referendum.

Spanish National Police in Tarragona, Catalonia on Sunday. Ver fotogalería
Spanish National Police in Tarragona, Catalonia on Sunday. EFE

But dramatic images of officers in riot gear involved in violent clashes with volunteers who were blocking the entrances to polling stations played a role in the decision of Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido to withdraw the officers, the same sources added.

The Interior Ministry, for its part, limited itself to expressing its “satisfaction with the actions of the [National] Police and the Civil Guard.”

“They prevented an illegal referendum,” the ministry said without confirming or denying reports about the decision to scale back operations in Catalonia.

A man falls to the floor during an operation by Spanish National Police riot officers at the Mediterránea de la Barceloneta school, Barcelona.
A man falls to the floor during an operation by Spanish National Police riot officers at the Mediterránea de la Barceloneta school, Barcelona.

Under the original plan, officers were to enter polling stations until 8pm, when voting closed, to be able to seize illegal voting material during the counting of ballots. However, in the middle of the afternoon, riot units began to receive orders not to carry out outstanding searches.

“In some cases they told us to withdraw before waiting for reinforcements planned for the night,” one officer said.

Police sources criticized the decision while also speaking out against the fact that plans for the operation in Catalonia were only finalized a few hours before October 1. They noted that plans had originally entailed officers entering polling stations on the night of Saturday to Sunday, or before volunteers gathered at the entrance to those stations.

Firefighters place themselves between protesters and Civil Guard riot officers outside a polling station in San Julià de Ramis, Catalonia.
Firefighters place themselves between protesters and Civil Guard riot officers outside a polling station in San Julià de Ramis, Catalonia. Getty

However, orders were changed at the last moment on Saturday with the Interior Ministry deciding that the regional Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, would carry out the initial action against the vote.

“From 8am to 9am, the [riot police] are to deploy and gradually remove [people] from all polling stations in Barcelona. After that, let the Mossos watch the area,” the new order read.

But that order was also criticized by various police sources consulted by EL PAÍS. Those sources said that if police had gone into the polling stations overnight on Saturday, it would have prevented images of officers entering in full riot gear.

Riot police tell a woman not to enter a polling station at the Mediterránea de la Barceloneta school in Barcelona.
Riot police tell a woman not to enter a polling station at the Mediterránea de la Barceloneta school in Barcelona.

As many as 893 people were injured in clashes between police and protesters in Catalonia on Sunday. Regional health authorities report that four of those people are in hospital, two in a serious condition: one person who was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet and another man who suffered a heart attack.

English version by George Mills.

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