Madrid: Fired up by Scotland`s looming independence referendum, nationalists in Catalonia took to the streets on Thursday for mass protests to demand their own vote on breaking away from Spain.
The first yellow- and red-striped shirts appeared in the sunny streets of Barcelona in the early morning, preparing for a late afternoon rally expected to draw half a million demonstrators.
Scotland`s September 18 referendum has put the wind in the sails of Catalans who want to seize sovereignty of this northeastern Spanish region from Madrid.
The Scottish vote is due just a week after the most sensitive day of the year for Catalonia: Thursday`s "Diada", the annual Catalan national commemoration.
"If a nation such as Scotland can vote, why not Catalonia?" said the region`s president Artur Mas, who has defied Madrid by calling a vote on Catalan independence for November 9.
"If the Catalan population wants to vote on its future, it`s practically impossible to stop that forever," he told AFP in an interview on Wednesday.
Organisers said they had hired 15,000 coaches to bus people in to Barcelona from around the region for a show of force.
In the late afternoon they will mass along two central Barcelona avenues in the shape of a giant letter V for "vote".
They will also set up 947 symbolic ballot boxes -- one for each of Catalonia`s municipal districts.Spain`s national government fiercely opposes any move towards independence for Catalonia. It has branded the planned vote illegal and vowed to block it.
The vote "cannot and will not take place", Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned in July.
Mas retorted on Wednesday: "It`s absurd to pretend that could be so and I think the Spanish government will have to realise that."
Mas has vowed to pass a regional law that he says will allow him to push ahead with the "consultation" vote, but his efforts risk being thwarted by Spain`s Constitutional Court.
EU officials have also warned that breaking away to form new states would leave Scotland and Catalonia out of the European Union.
But Mas predicted: "If the `Yes` wins, I am sure there will be negotiations very quickly, even immediately, to try to keep Scotland in the European Union."
The Diada marks what many in the region see as the day they lost their autonomy: September 11, 1714, when Barcelona fell to Spanish and French forces in the War of the Spanish Succession.
Proud of their distinct Catalan language and culture, many of Catalonia`s 7.5 million inhabitants feel short-changed by the national government in Madrid, which redistributes their taxes.
Catalonia formally declared itself a "nation" in 2006 but Spain`s Constitutional Court later overruled that claim. In 2012, Spain`s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected Mas`s demand for more power to tax and spend in Catalonia.
The region accounts for a fifth of Spain`s economy but it was hit hard by the financial crisis that broke out in 2008, fuelling a surge in pro-separatist feeling.
In 2012 Barcelona saw the first of the latest series of massive Diada demonstrations.
"Three years ago we demonstrated in the Diada and we hope that this year`s will be the definitive one," said Jordi Fradera, 43, who travelled to Barcelona early on Thursday morning from the town of Girona.
"All the trains from Girona were completely full," he said.
Opponents of secession think cutting themselves off from Spain would be an economic disaster, however.
South of Barcelona in the town of Tarragona on Thursday, the Catalan Civil Society movement has called for a rival gathering to denounce independence as a "dead end".