MADRID - Spanish police reinforcements are pouring into the rebellious northeast region of Catalonia to control major protests expected to result from government efforts to abort an independence referendum that local authorities called for Sunday.
The battle of wills appeared to be escalating two days ahead of the planned vote, with Catalonian officials vowing to go ahead with a referendum that would effectively mean the secession of Spain's richest region, while federal officials in Madrid sound just as determined to stop them.
"The [Catalan] government's commitment is very clear: People will be able to vote," Joaquin Forn, the regional interior minister, told reporters Thursday in Barcelona, the main city in the region.
But Spanish officials are just as adamant. Following a meeting of top regional and national security officials in Barcelona on Thursday, Spanish junior Interior Minister Jose Antonio Nieto said peaceful demonstrations - but not a vote - will be permitted.
"On Sunday it will be possible to celebrate, everybody in a different way, through a picnic or a demonstration, and to express a sentiment, but there will be no breach of the law," he told a news conference.
The growing crisis in Catalonia took center stage Tuesday at a White House press conference, where President Trump strongly backed Spain's unity while hosting visiting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
"Nobody knows if there is going to be a referendum or not, but it's quite clear in any case that Spain should remain united," said Mr. Trump, adding that it would be foolish for Catalonia to break away.
Spain has been a key U.S. ally since the 1950s, hosting air and naval bases used to host and reprovision forces deployed to theaters in Europe and the Middle East. The U.S. bases in Spain have assumed new relevance with the growing war against Islamic State in neighboring North Africa.
Spanish government officials say they have dismantled the capacity of Catalan authorities to hold the vote through court orders and police actions that have included massive confiscations of election material and the arrests of a dozen Catalan officials and local mayors.
"There is no election board or equipment. There are no ballot papers or voting locations. There may be a lot of noise but not a valid referendum with the minimum of guarantees," said Mr. Rajoy.
Government arm-twisting forced the resignations of all 12 members of Catalonia's electoral commission. They were threatened with fines of $15,000 per day if they agreed to administer a referendum that Spain's highest court has declared illegal and unconstitutional. Spanish national unity has always been a hot-button political issue, with Madrid having dealt for decades with a sometimes violent independence movement in the Basque region.
Spain's democratic constitution, drafted in 1978 following 40 years of autocratic rule under Francisco Franco, specifically forbids the separation of any part of the national territory, a provision interpreted at the time as a concession to the armed forces for surrendering power.
Catalan and Basque regional leaders, as well as some opposition socialist politicians, have called for changing the constitution under which Spain has prospered as a model European democracy during the past 40 years.
Pro-independence and leftist parties have called for massive mobilizations Sunday. Analysts fear that popular protests could spread over the region after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Barcelona after Spain's national police forces raided local government offices last week. Police vehicles were destroyed, and an angry mob trapped a Guardia Civil unit.
Fearing serious violence, police held back from entering the headquarters of the radical leftist CUP party, which has developed close links with the Basque terrorist organization ETA. Spanish law enforcement sources say ETA militants have been deploying to Catalonia ahead of the vote.
Strikes and pot-banging
Despite a semblance of normality punctuated by a Rolling Stones concert on Wednesday, student strikes, flash protests and pot-bangings have been reverberating throughout Barcelona all week, increasing the popular tensions.
Many see the clash over the vote as a warm-up to an upheaval that would pressure Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont to declare independence, which he has promised to do.
"If Puigdemont does that, he will be arrested," said one security official in Madrid who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The Interior Ministry would take direct control of the Catalan government under Article 155 of the Constitution."
Efforts to frustrate the referendum have led to a cat-and-mouse game between police and Catalan secessionists, who keep improvising ways to organize the vote. Whether the result will be seen as a legitimate expression of popular will is another question.
"There is no way that the government can control 6,000 voting locations," CUP leader Aida Sanuy said at a press conference last week. She said her group has hidden large quantities of ballot boxes and that police lack the manpower to prevent their placement.
Police say they suspect CUP and other groups will try to deliver ballot boxes to polling stations that will be published online, using bread delivery trucks and other private transportation facilities operated by local unions of teamsters.
Catalan authorities are getting around post office interception of notifications to election supervisors by hand-delivering the letters.
All of this has led to a virtual cyberwar between the central government and referendum organizers over control of websites used by the CUP and other pro-independence parties. The Guardia Civil says that it has shut about 50 referendum webpages over the past week and has 85 to go.
The central government has also used its control of the purse strings in a further bid to pressure Catalonians, choking off any government funds that might be used to finance the vote.
The Spanish government has taken over from the Catalan government authority overall spending on local health, education, social services and the payment of civil servants. Also, every invoice paid by Catalan authorities, including for nonessential services, must go to Madrid for rubber-stamping before it is paid, The Associated Press reported.
Pro-independence groups are starting to contract with foreign online platforms to get around government internet controls, according to cyberspace specialists.
But the success or failure of the central government's efforts to smother the referendum largely depends on cooperation from the Catalan regional police known as the Mossos D'Esquadra, who have proved less than reliable.
Mr. Puigdemont convened an unprecedented meeting of his security team a week ago, to which Spanish security officials invited themselves. At a subsequent press conference, Spain's deputy interior minister said he was unable to conclude any agreement with his Catalan counterparts.
The chief of Mossos D'Esquadra, Jose Lluis Trapero, warned of "foreseeable risks to public order" if police try to cordon off or shut down polling stations. His willingness to dislodge secessionist activists from schools and health care facilities where they are planning to stage "occupations" is considered essential to prevent major clashes.
About 10,000 Spanish security personnel have been deployed to Catalonia, said a Guardia Civil official.
In a throwback to military campaigns of past centuries, flag-waving crowds gathered in cities and towns throughout Spain to see off national police and Guardia Civil units being deployed to reinforce security contingents in Catalonia, with cries of, "Go at them."
While the independence movement enjoys the support of about 50 percent of Catalans, according to opinion polls, it's provoking a patriotic backlash in the rest of Spain and appears to enjoy little support internationally. Neighboring France and other EU governments have expressed strong support for Mr. Rajoy.
Only Russia's state media have been giving close coverage to the Catalonian crisis with an editorial tilt toward the secessionist cause.
Kremlin-sponsored academics interviewed on the state-backed RT network have said an independent Catalonia would support Russia's annexation of Crimea, which conducted its own referendum on breaking with Ukraine, and whose results the U.S. and European Union refused to recognize.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.