Protesters outside the Catalan region’s finance ministry after junior minister, Josep Maria Jové, was arrested by Spanish police during a raid on several government offices in Barcelona © Reuters

Spain’s paramilitary national police raided the headquarters of the Catalan government in Barcelona on Wednesday, in the latest offensive against the proposed referendum on independence set to be held in less than two weeks.

In a move that ratcheted up tensions amid one of the worst political crises in modern Spanish history, the Guardia Civil searched government departments and arrested at least 13 Catalan officials.

Among those detained was Josep Maria Jové, secretary-general of the Catalan vice-presidency, according to the Catalan government, while officers also seized about 10m ballot papers that were to be used in the vote on October 1.

This led Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, to claim that the Spanish government had “de facto suspended” home rule in the province. Jordi Sànchez, the president of the national assembly, called for citizens to take to the streets in protest.

“We condemn and reject the undemocratic and totalitarian attitude of the Spanish state . . . it has crossed the red line separating them from a repressive regime,” said Mr Puigdemont at press conference in Barcelona.

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, told the national parliament on Wednesday: “The government is doing what it has to do . . . And we will keep doing that until the very end.”

He added: “This is a judicial operation which is being done to guarantee . . . that the law is respected.”

Spanish authorities have been looking to raise pressure on the Catalan state ahead of the planned vote, which has been ruled illegal by the Spanish courts. The Spanish government has promised that no vote will take place.

A man hols pro-referendum posters reading in Catalan "Vote to be free" as Spanish Civil Guards and Catalan regional police officers 'Mossos D'Esquadra" stand in front of the Economy headquarters of Catalonia's regional government in Barcelona on September 20, 2019, during a search by Spain's Guardia Civil police. The operation comes amid mounting tensions as Catalan leaders press ahead with preparations for an independence referendum on October 1 despite Madrid's ban and a court ruling deeming it illegal. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGOJOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images
A man holds a poster reading in Catalan 'Vote to be free' as Spanish civil guards and Catalan regional police stand outside Catalonia's regional government in Barcelona © AFP

On Tuesday, police raided the offices of Spain’s biggest private delivery company Unipost and seized more than 45,000 envelopes that the Catalan government was to send to notify people about the referendum.

At the weekend, Spain’s Guardia Civil confiscated more than 1.3m pro-independence posters, flyers and pamphlets. The government last week moved to take control of Catalan finances, in an attempt to stop public money being spent on the vote.

Police have also threatened legal action against individuals organising the vote, including mayors, politicians and even ordinary people helping at the polling station. But Wednesday saw the first arrests.

Following the raids, hundreds of protesters gathered in central Barcelona, many carrying red and yellow Catalan flags, to protest, while some political parties also condemned the move.

The leftwing Podemos party said: “It is unacceptable for there to be political prisoners in a European democracy. The Partido Popular leads us to an authoritarian regression that cannot be tolerated.”

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, also spoke out against the police operation, saying in a tweet that it was “a democratic scandal”.

On Wednesday, Barcelona football club criticised government for opposing Catalonia’s right to vote, saying that it “condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights”.

Alfonso Dastis, the Spanish foreign minister, on Tuesday used a Bloomberg interview to accuse separatists of using “Nazi” tactics, after they put up campaign posters featuring photos pictures of local mayors who have refused to help with the vote.

Also this week, the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) said it was no longer ruling out the use of section 155 of the Spanish constitution, which could effectively curtail self-government in the north-eastern region.

If section 155 is invoked — described by many as the “nuclear option” by the government — the central government will be free to adopt “the necessary measures” to compel regional authorities to obey the law.

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