Reuters International

People hold Catalan separatist flags known as "Esteladas" during a gathering to mark the Catalonia day "Diada" in central Barcelona, Spain, September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Albert Gea

(reuters_tickers)

By Sam Edwards

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across Catalonia on Sunday to support a break from Spain which local leaders want to deliver for next year in spite of legal blocks by the central government.

Catalans gathered in five cities across the northeastern region, including Barcelona, and waved yellow banners in time to music, symbolising the rhythm of a beating heart uniting an independent republic.

Police said that in Barcelona alone about 540,000 people took part. The mass rally on Catalonia's national day, La Diada, comes as the pro-independence local assembly vows to press ahead with plans to form an new state in 2017, raising pressure on leaders in Madrid to respond at a time of disarray in national politics.

Two inconclusive general elections have left Spain without a new national administration for more than eight months, in part due to squabbling among parties over how best to counter or defuse Catalonia's separatist challenge.

Spain's conservative caretaker government has firmly opposed any move towards secession and resorted to challenges via the constitutional court, though this has escalated the stand-off in recent months under acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

"We don't really care anymore about who will govern in Madrid," said Montse Pedra, 39, a speech therapist at the rally in Barcelona, where campaigners waved the starred blue, red and yellow pro-independence flags.

She said she was no longer hopeful Catalonia would be granted a referendum on independence like Scotland's in 2014 - where people voted to remain in Britain - but was looking beyond that.

"Here that's not going to happen one way or another, so we're going to just declare independence, and that's it," Pedra added.

Whether regional leaders will manage to produce the break they have promised is unclear.

Pro-separatist parties won a majority of seats in the regional assembly last year and have starting laying the ground for laws and institutions for an independent state, though such moves have been deemed illegal in court.

"The whole process is going a little slowly," said another participant, 64-year-old maths teacher Rafael Subirats, adding he thought independence was unlikely to happen by 2017.

Secessionists fell short of winning an overall majority of the vote last September, which according to anti-independence campaigners weakens the mandate for a split.

INTERNAL STRIFE

The long-simmering separatist movement, in a region that produces about a fifth of Spain's economic output, erupted in 2012 during a deep economic crisis and a stand-off with Madrid over demands for more autonomy.

Catalonia, home to 7.5 million people, has its own language and distinct culture, as well as a long-standing industrial tradition and a thriving tourism sector.

Support for independence has grown again in recent months. One poll in July showed some 48 percent in favour of Catalonia becoming an independent state, while 42 percent were against it.

Yet the movement has also been hampered by internal struggles.

Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont faces a confidence vote in the Catalan assembly on Sept. 28. Analysts expect him to win it.

Puigdemont stressed on Sunday his government would call regional elections next year as a form of plebiscite to ratify a breakaway, unless he could persuade Madrid to allow Catalans to vote on their future.

"I will insist once again that this is a process that needs to be agreed on with the Spanish government... a referendum is the best mechanism to find out if people want (to be independent) or not," Puigdemont told a news conference.

(Writing by Sarah White; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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