A Spanish judge was set Friday to issue an arrest warrant for Catalonia's deposed leader Carles Puigdemont over his region's contested independence drive, in a move likely to further escalate tensions in Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
The European arrest warrant was due a day after a large chunk of Puigdemont's government was thrown behind bars pending probes in Madrid into their role in Catalonia's push for secession.
Puigdemont, dismissed last week as Catalan president by the Spanish government and who has since been holed up in Belgium, had failed to show at a Thursday court hearing in Madrid.
Judge Carmen Lamela, who on Thursday had Puigdemont's deputy Oriol Junqueras and seven other deposed regional ministers detained pending a potential trial for alleged sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds, will issue the warrant "during the day Friday," a judicial source in Madrid told AFP.
Puigdemont's Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert had earlier told Flemish television channel VRT that he expected the Spanish judiciary would then send an extradition request to Belgian federal prosecutors, adding that his client would appeal if a Belgian judge approved the request.
As television footage showed images of police vans with flashing blue lights taking Puigdemont's former ministers to different prisons, Catalans took to the streets in anger and disbelief.
There were protests in front of the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, the regional capital, with police estimating a crowd of 20,000. Others gathered outside town halls across the region including 8,000 people in both Girona and Tarragona.
Those in Barcelona held up their mobile phones like candles and waved separatist flags -- red and yellow stripes with a white star -- also holding black-and-yellow "libertad" ("freedom") signs.
The crowds, who included elderly couples and young parents carrying toddlers, chanted "Free political prisoners" and "This isn't justice but dictatorship."
"It makes you angry even when you don't vote for independence because every time a disproportionate measure is taken, it only fuels independence," said retired teacher Dolores, 66.
Puigdemont called in a statement broadcast on Catalan TV from an undisclosed location for the release of the ministers and said that the situation "is no longer an internal Spanish affair".
"The international community, and especially the European community, must realise the danger these attitudes represent," he said.
- 'Dodging responsibilities' -
A total of 20 people including Puigdemont, Junqueras and the speaker of the Catalan regional parliament had been summoned for questioning on Thursday.
A hearing of the speaker of Catalan's parliament and five others at the Supreme Court was adjourned until November 9 after their lawyers requested more time to prepare their defence.
Puigdemont and four others with him in Belgium failed to show.
In respect to his no-show at the hearing, Bekaert said his client "did not find a climate conducive to testifying".
In her ruling, judge Lamela said she had ordered preventive detention for those who remained because of a possible flight risk.
"Let's remember that some of the defendants have already gone to other countries, dodging possible penal responsibilities," she wrote.
A ninth former minister, who resigned last Friday, was also remanded in custody but will be set free if he pays bail of 50,000 euros ($58,000).
- Independence drive -
Catalan demands for independence date back centuries but have surged in recent years, in part due to a difficult economic situation compounded by corruption.
Puigdemont's government organised an independence referendum on October 1 despite a court ban.
Spanish police tried and failed to stop it, in some cases firing rubber bullets at people defending polling stations.
A declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament followed last Friday.
But that same day, Rajoy dismissed the regional government, imposing direct rule on Catalonia and called regional elections for December 21.
- 'Failed state' -
Marta Rovira, a lawyer and Catalan separatist lawmaker, briefly broke down in tears as she spoke to reporters in Madrid after the announcement of the detentions.
"The Spanish state is a failed state, a state that has failed democratically," she said. "I'm convinced we won't surrender, we won't, we will fight until the end."
But Catalans, fiercely proud of their language and culture, remain deeply divided about independence, polls indicate.
The European Union has swung firmly behind Rajoy. Spain's central bank warned Thursday of a possible recession in Catalonia if the crisis continues.
In addition, there are signs of growing divisions in the separatist camp, with many unhappy with Puigdemont, particularly now he is hundreds of miles away from the region he hopes to lead to independence.