World leaders urge dialogue to calm tensions over Catalonia

Independence supporters march during a demonstration downtown Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. Catalan leaders accused Spanish police of brutality and repression while the Spanish government praised the security forces for behaving firmly and proportionately. Videos and photographs of the police actions were on the front page of news media outlets around the world. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — European and world leaders are urging dialogue between Spain’s government and authorities in Catalonia, saying Monday they are worried about the potential for a further escalation of tensions after a violent crackdown by Spanish police during an independence referendum.

With the Catalan parliament expected to declare independence in the next days, leaders stressed that talks are needed urgently.

“The pictures which reached us from Spain yesterday show how important it is to stop the spiraling escalation now,” said German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Gabriel also said he was convinced that “Spain will be able to overcome its internal divisions if both sides can agree on a common path.”

Many European leaders criticized the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for what they considered an excessive use of force during Sunday’s vote, though stopped short of giving support to the Catalan secessionist drive.

European Union chief Donald Tusk, while sharing Spain’s reasoning for not recognizing the referendum, appealed to Rajoy to “avoid further escalation and use of force.”

Spanish riot police smashed their way into polling stations across Catalonia in an effort to derail a referendum that the Spanish government said was illegal. The clashes injured 893 people. Catalonia said preliminary poll results showed 90 percent favored independence after less than half the electorate voted.

The drive for Catalonian independence is the latest challenge to the European Union after several difficult years marked by the Greek financial crisis, democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary and Britain’s vote to leave the bloc.

“These hours are crucial ones for Europe,” Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos said during a visit to Belgrade, speaking of the need to “defend the unity and cohesion of the European Union.”

The U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said he was “very disturbed” by the violence and that police responses must “at all times be proportionate and necessary.”

He, too, called for political dialogue.

Reactions from individual countries were colored by their experience — or lack thereof — with native secessionist movements.

France, which has a small Basque nationalist movement, came down clearly on the side of Spain. President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Rajoy on Monday, with the French presidential office issuing a statement afterward in support of Spain’s “constitutional unity” and no comment on the violence of the Spanish police.

In the Czech Republic, which separated peacefully from Slovakia in 1993, the Foreign Ministry commented on “improper force” being used and noted the “high number of people injured.”

Serbia, which saw its former province of Kosovo declare independence in 2008, came down clearly against Catalonia.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic declared support for the territorial integrity of Spain and denounced the “double standards and hypocrisy” of all the EU member states who recognized Kosovo’s independence but have not supported Catalonia’s independence bid.

Of the 28 EU member states, all but Spain and four others have recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty.

In Kosovo, authorities declined to give any reaction to the developments in Catalonia. One analyst, Lulzim Peci of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, said the cases really can’t be compared, noting that Kosovo’s declaration of independence came after a war and was mediated by the United Nations.

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Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Brussels; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania; Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece; Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic; and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.