Spain’s prime minister has joined with the king to urge the people of Catalonia not to take part in a planned referendum on the region’s independence that has been branded “unconstitutional”.
The move comes as Spain’s state prosecutor threatened to arrest 712 Catalan mayors who are co-operating with the scheduled poll.
The pro-independence coalition governing Catalonia says the 1 October ballot will go ahead despite a ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court suspending the vote until judges can rule on its legality.
Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy is fighting to stop the ballot and he appealed to Catalans to ignore calls from independence supporters to turn out.
Mr Rajoy said: “If anyone urges you to go to a polling station, don’t go, because the referendum can’t take place, it would be an absolutely illegal act.”
The state prosecutor, Jose Manuel Maza, is investigating mayors who are cooperating with the referendum and has ordered their arrest if they do not comply.
The pro-independence coalition ruling Catalonia has asked the 947 mayors in the northeastern region to provide facilities for the plebiscite.
Meanwhile, King Felipe VI commented for the first time on the political crisis triggered by Catalonia’s plan to hold a vote, saying people must respect the country’s constitution, which forbids secession.
Speaking at a ceremony to award national culture prizes, Felipe said the constitution “will prevail” against any attempt to break Spain apart.
He said the rights of all Spaniards will be upheld against “whoever steps outside constitutional and statutory law”.
On Tuesday, Spain’s top court suspended the law that was meant to become Catalonia’s transitional constitution if the region declares itself a separate nation, according to reports.
The Constitutional Court had already suspended the law and decree calling for a referendum on secession while it considers the national government’s claim that it is unconstitutional.
The state prosecutor’s office said the chiefs of the three judicial police forces in Catalonia, including the regional Mossos police force, were being briefed on their legal obligation to stop any actions towards holding a referendum.
On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Catalans marked their national holiday by supporting the right to vote and become independent.
They packed the streets of central Barcelona which became a sea of yellow T-shirts that evoked the striped Catalan flag. Many participants carried the pro-independence flag, known as the “estelada”, which adds a blue triangle and white star.
The crowd passed a giant banner overhead calling for a secession referendum.
Catalan independence parties said the huge turnout - estimated by Barcelona’s municipal police at a million - in the regional capital was a show of strength that would add momentum to the cause.
“Today we have said loud and clear that no orders from any court will stop us,” Jordi Sanchez, head of the grassroots movement Assemblea Nacional Catalana, said in a speech to the crowd.
While the stand-off between Barcelona and Madrid is creating divisions, the good-humoured celebration attended by families produced no signs of conflict. Participants sang and clapped along to recordings of the Catalan anthem Els Segadors (The Reapers). The crowd shouted in unison “Independencia!” after organisers counted down over a public address system to 5:14pm, which on a 24-hour clock is 1714.
That is the year independence supporters regard as the point when Catalonia lost much of the self-governing power it enjoyed for centuries.