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Jailed Catalan leader signals softer stance towards Spain ahead of vote

FILE PHOTO: Dismissed Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras arrives to Spain's High Court after being summoned to testify on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds for defying the central government by holding a referendum on secession and proclaiming independence, in Madrid, Spain, November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Javier Barbancho/File Photo


MADRID (Reuters) - The jailed leader of Catalonia's main pro-independence party has backed away from demands for unilateral secession from Spain, days ahead of regional elections that could swing the course of the Catalan crisis toward negotiation and calm investor nerves.

In reply to written Reuters questions passed to him in prison, Oriol Junqueras, whose Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left) party is expected to become the largest separatist force in parliament, struck a conciliatory tone.

Junqueras, who is in custody on allegations of rebellion and sedition, wrote that he would continue to pursue independence if he becomes Catalonia's next president, but also to "build bridges and shake hands" with the Spanish state.

"I can assure you that we are democrats before we are separatists and that the aim (of gaining independence) does not always justify the means," he said in comments that appear to drop his party's earlier demand for unilateral secession.

Junqueras was deputy leader of the Catalan government that was dismissed by Madrid in October after the regional assembly declared unilateral independence from Spain. The assembly was also dissolved and fresh elections called.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick; Editing by Julien Toyer)

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