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Catalan independence vote begins in chaos as police seize ballot papers


By Hilary Clarke, Laura Smith-Spark, Vasco Cotovio and Isa Soares, CNN

(CNN) -- Catalonia's disputed independence vote quickly descended into chaos on Sunday as Spanish national police entered polling stations, seizing ballot boxes and voting papers.

In the town of Girona, where the regional President Carles Puigdemont was due to vote, police smashed their way into a polling station by breaking a glass window.

Spain's national government is implacably opposed any breakaway moves by the northeastern region, and the country's top court declared the vote illegal. "Police are confiscating ballot boxes to respect the judicial mandate and the law regarding the illegal referendum," Spain's interior ministry said in a Twitter message.

In Barcelona, lines of Guardia Civil attempted to prevent voters from entering polling stations, photographs showed.

Catalonia's separatist government has remained adamant that the vote on independence will go ahead.

The dispute between the regional government in Barcelona and the Spanish government has become increasingly bitter in recent weeks, with mass protests held in the regional capital, Barcelona, and other cities.

In the runup to the vote, national authorities have seized ballot papers, voter lists and campaign material, as well as sending thousands of extra police, or Guardia Civil, to the region. High-ranking Catalan officials involved in organizing the referendum have also been arrested.

In the past few days, authorities blocked the use of a voting location app and seized vote-counting software.

Puigdemont, who called the referendum in June, had urged voters to go to the polls Sunday despite Madrid's opposition.

The Catalan government tweeted Friday that 2,315 polling stations would be open for the referendum, with more than 5.3 million voters on the electoral roll. They will be asked to respond yes or no to the question: "Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state, in the form of a Republic?"

Polling stations were due to open at 9 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. local time on Sunday, Joan Maria Piqué, the international communications director for the government of Catalonia, told CNN. Results are expected around 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET).

Most of the polling stations are in schools, where parents and teachers have organized activities for families over the weekend -- and even slept overnight -- in an effort to prevent police closing off access.

Spain's central government warned Friday that the regional Catalan police, the Mossos d'Esquadra, would be responsible for removing people from polling stations in a nonviolent way. The Guardia Civil were stationed on ships in the port of Barcelona in case they were needed.

'Separate nation'

Catalonia, a wealthy region in Spain's northeast, has its own regional government -- or Generalitat -- which already has considerable powers over healthcare, education and tax collection.

But Catalan nationalists want more, arguing that they are a separate nation with their own history, culture and language and that they should have increased fiscal independence.

The region pays tax to Madrid, and pro-independence politicians argue that complex mechanisms for redistributing tax revenue are unfair on wealthier areas and result in Catalonian revenues subsidizing other parts of Spain.

Others, including Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, insist that the country cannot be divided.

Catalonia's campaign to break away has been gaining momentum since 2010, when Spain's economy plunged during the financial crisis. Catalonia held a symbolic poll in 2014, in which 80% of voters backed complete secession -- but only 32% of the electorate turned out.

The Catalan government has not yet made clear how it will respond in the even of a "yes" vote.

The-CNN-Wire

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