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Catalonia braces for controversial referendum

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 01/10/2017
Separatist leaders have called on 5.3 million eligible voters to cast ballots on Sunday [Juan Medina/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Separatist leaders have called on 5.3 million eligible voters to cast ballots on Sunday [Juan Medina/Reuters]

Catalan voters blocked doors and congregated outside voting stations on Sunday to protect them in case of police action to prevent a banned referendum on Catalonia breaking away from Spain.

Catalans were defying rain and police orders to leave designated polling booths ahead of the referendum on the region's secession that has challenged Spain's political and institutional order.

Organisers at a polling station in one Barcelona school asked people to block the entrance and to use passive resistance if police intervened to prevent voting, which is due to start at 9am (07:00GMT).

"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 on Sunday.

People were concentrating in doors and hallways to block the entrance. Pictures from other voting stations showed crowds grouped in formation outside.

Police have been ordered not to use force but to empty schools where polling stations deemed illegal have been set up.

READ MORE: Spanish police seal off polling stations in Catalonia  

Joaquim Bosch, a 73 year-old retiree at Princep de Viana high school, where a crowd of 20 people was growing, said he is uneasy about a possible police response to the crowds.

"I have come to vote to defend the rights of my country, which is Catalonia," Bosch said.

Tens of thousands of Catalans are expected to attempt to vote in a ballot that will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution.

The Spanish interior ministry said in a statement on Saturday the "majority" of public buildings that had been identified as referendum sites had "stayed shut" and "only a few" are occupied by people "with the only aim" of obstructing police work.

In Madrid, thousands of people rallied on Saturday in favour of Spanish unity.

OPINION: Why Catalonia should be given a say on its future  

Waving red and yellow Spanish flags, the demonstrators gathered in the central Plaza de Cibeles, in front of the capital's town hall, chanting "Catalonia is part of Spain" and "I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish," - a cry usually heard during national team football matches.

The central government in Madrid had previously said 1,300 of 2,315 designated voting stations have been sealed off by police, who have been mobilised in the thousands in the region.

Regional separatist leaders have pledged to hold the referendum and called on 5.3 million eligible voters to cast ballots.

Defiant crowds gathered before dawn on Sunday in Barcelona and towns across Catalonia at schools and other facilities designated as polling stations. They were joining parents, children and activists who occupied the buildings over the weekend.

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