BARCELONA, Spain — The Spanish government moved to activate a previously untapped constitutional article Saturday so it can take control of Catalonia, illustrating its determination to derail the independence movement led by separatist politicians in the prosperous industrial region.

 

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Cabinet was meeting to outline the scope and timing of the measures the government plans to take under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. The section allows central authorities to intervene when one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions fails to comply with the law.

It's never been used since the 1978 Constitution was adopted, but Rajoy's conservative government says establishing direct control over Catalonia was a move of last resort.

The goal is "the return to legality and the recovery of institutional normalcy," the prime minister said Friday.

Rajoy could force the removal of Catalan officials and call early regional elections for as soon as January. Such actions are expected to spark angry opposition from supporters of independence and moderate Catalans who will see them as an attack on their autonomy.

The slow-burning constitutional crisis over secession escalated this month when regional government officials claimed a disputed independence referendum held Oct. 1 gave them a legal basis for separating from Spain.

The country's Constitutional Court has so far ruled against all moves toward secession, including the controversial referendum. The court's website appeared to be offline Saturday, and a spokeswoman said it had been affected by vandalism of unknown origin.

Spain's National Security Department had warned of potential digital vandalism Friday and said slogans supporting independence for Catalonia had popped up on a number of government websites.

The Constitutional Court spokeswoman said Saturday only the court's website was not working and no internal information was compromised. She requested anonymity in line with internal rules.

The referendum vote itself was marred by sporadic violence as police took action to shut down some polling locations. The central government says the results have no legitimacy.
Opposition parties have agreed to support the prime minister in revoking Catalonia's autonomy as a way to thwart the independence drive.

Although the ruling Popular Party has a strong enough majority to get the specific measures passed by the country's Senate, Rajoy has rallied the support of the opposition to give his government's actions more weight.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has threatened to call a vote in the regional parliament for an explicit declaration of independence from Spain.

Catalan activist groups called for another protest Saturday in Barcelona over the jailing of two pro-independence leaders who are being investigated on possible sedition charges.

A National Court judge had Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, the heads of grassroots organizations Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural, preventatively held on Monday.

The prominent activists are accused of orchestrating earlier demonstrations in mid-September that allegedly hindered a judicial probe of preparations for the Oct. 1 referendum after it had been declared unconstitutional and got in the way of police carrying out orders to prevent the vote.

Barcelona resident Rosa Isart said the Spanish government's determination to prevent Catalonia from leaving Spain reminded her of the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco four decades ago.

"It seems unbelievable that I have to see this again because of the incompetence of these politicians who don't know how to speak or dialogue," Isart said.
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AP videojournalists Pietro DeCristofaro and Vicente Marquez in Barcelona contributed.