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Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez gestures while meeting with pro-independence Catalan leader Quim Torra at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Medina

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MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez met pro-independence Catalan leader Quim Torra on Monday for the first time, in a move that signals a softening of tensions between Madrid and Barcelona after a bitter political standoff.

Catalonia unilaterally declared independence last October, prompting the then-conservative government of Mariano Rajoy to impose direct rule from Madrid. Torra's newly-elected administration in the wealthy region continues to push for a split from Spain.

Sanchez, a Socialist, has taken a less hardline tone on Catalonia than his predecessor Rajoy, whom he replaced in June, but he has also made clear he is resolutely opposed to any independence referendum or attempt at secession.

He has made a gesture of goodwill by moving jailed Catalan separatist leaders closer to home but other concessions are unlikely to be announced on Monday after the meeting at the prime minister's residence in Madrid.

Political party sources say both Sanchez and Torra will take it as a sign of success if they come away from Monday's talks with another meeting planned - a sign that any process of reconciliation will be long and complicated.

The two men smiled and shook hands on the steps of the prime minister's residence, La Moncloa, before entering.

The Catalan leader gave Sanchez presents of a book of historic maps of Catalonia and a bottle of ratafia, a traditional after-dinner liquor made from green walnuts and mixed herbs and spices.

(Reporting By Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Reuters