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People wave Esteladas (Catalan separatist flag) during a gathering to protest against the imprisonment of leaders of two of the largest Catalan separatist organizations, Catalan National Assembly's Jordi Sanchez and Omnium's Jordi Cuixart, who were jailed by Spain's High Court, in Barcelona, Spain October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

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MADRID (Reuters) - Catalonia's regional president told a meeting of his party he would formally declare independence if Spain starts the process of suspending the region's autonomy on Thursday, a Catalan government source said on Wednesday.

Madrid has given Thursday as a deadline for the regional government to back down from a symbolic independence declaration made last week, or face direct rule from the capital.

If Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy moves to apply direct rule on Thursday, it will take between three and five days for regional autonomy to be effectively suspended.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Jesus Aguado and Julien Toyer)

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