BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish riot police smashed their way into Catalan polling stations Sunday to try to halt a disputed referendum on independence, firing rubber bullets and attacking voters who were trying to stop them from confiscating ballots. The daylong melee injured at least 761 civilians and 11 police, authorities said.
In a televised address after the polls in the northeastern region closed, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insisted there had been no independence referendum in Catalonia. He said the great majority of Catalans did not "follow the script of the secessionists" — but offered no proof for that assertion.
Rajoy said the independence referendum, which had been barred by the country's constitutional court, only served to sow divisions. In comments sure to anger Catalonians, he praised the Spanish police, saying they acted with "firmness and serenity" in response to the referendum.
Police were acting on orders from a judge to stop the voting process, which Spain says is illegal under the country's constitution. It's still unclear how many of the region's 5.3 million eligible voters turned out, what happens next if the region does declare independence based on the vote and whether Spain might be plunged deeper into a constitutional crisis.
Police used batons, fired rubber bullets, and roughed up voters. Catalan authorities say police even used tear gas once.
At the Pau Claris School in Barcelona, footage by one voter showed police aggressively removing people blocking their way, in one case dragging a person by the hair and in other cases pushing them down a flight of stairs.
The people seen in videos being hit, kicked and thrown around by police included elderly people with their dogs, young girls and regular citizens of all stripes. Many tried to shield themselves from being smacked on the head. Some screamed in fear.
Catalan's health service said two people were in serious condition in hospitals in Barcelona and another person was being treated for an eye injury that fit the profile of having been hit by a rubber bullet.
Spanish and Catalan officials traded blame for the chaos.
"Police brutality will shame forever the Spanish state," independence-minded Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said as crowds cheered.
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau called on Rajoy to resign after the violence.
"Rajoy has been a coward, hiding behind the prosecutors and courts. Today he crossed all the red lines with the police actions against normal people, old people, families who were defending their fundamental rights," she told TV3
Spain's foreign minister called the violence "unfortunate" and "unpleasant" but "proportionate."
In an interview with The Associate Press, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis blamed the violence solely on Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his regional government.
"If people insist in disregarding the law and doing something that has been consistently declared illegal and unconstitutional, law enforcement officers need to uphold the law," he said.
Tension has been on the rise since the vote was called in early September, crystalizing years of defiance by separatists in the affluent region, which contributes mightily to Spain's economy. As one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions, Catalonia enjoys ample rights but key areas such as infrastructure and taxes are in the hands of Madrid. Separatist Catalans have long complained of contributing too much to the state while not getting enough in return.
The regional government's spokesman, Jordi Turull, blamed the violence directly on Rajoy and senior Spanish officials. He said the rough actions by Spanish National Police and Civil Guard forces on Sunday were politically motivated and showed "a clear motivation to harm citizens."
Catalan leader said they would appeal to European authorities to examine the violations of human rights by Spanish authorities.
Tensions were running so high that Barcelona played its soccer game against Las Palmas without fans at the Camp Nou stadium. Barcelona wanted to postpone the game but said the Spanish league refused the request.
Manuel Condeminas, a 48-year-old IT manager who tried to block police from driving away with the ballot boxes, said agents had kicked them before using their batons and firing the projectiles, which were ball-shaped.
Elsewhere, Civil Guard officers, wearing helmets and carrying shields, used a hammer to break the glass of the front door and a lock cutter to break into the Sant Julia de Ramis sports center near the city of Girona.
Clashes broke out less than an hour after polls opened, and not long before Catalonia regional president Carles Puigdemont was expected to turn up to vote at the sports center. Polling station workers broke out into songs and chants, challenging the officers' presence. Puigdemont was forced to vote in Cornella de Terri, near the northern city of Girona.
Police had sealed off many voting centers in the hours before the vote to prevent their use. Others were filled with activists determined to hold their ground.
Spanish riot police forcefully removed a few hundred would-be voters from a polling station at a school in Barcelona. The scene was repeated at other locations, although voting was peaceful in some spots.
Daniel Riano, 54, was inside when the police pushed aside a large group and busted in the Estela school's front door.
"We were waiting inside to vote when the National Police used force to enter, they used a mace to break in the glass door and they took everything," he said. "One policeman put me in a headlock to drag me out while I was holding my wife's hand! It was incredible. They didn't give any warning."
National Police and Civil Guard officers also showed up in other polling centers where Catalan officials were expected.
Before dawn, reporters with The Associated Press saw ballot boxes wrapped in plastic bags being carried into some polling stations in Barcelona occupied by parents and activists. The plastic ballot boxes, bearing the seal of the Catalan regional government, prompted cheers from hopeful voters who had gathered in the schools before dawn.
Courts and police have been cracking down for days to halt the vote, confiscating 10 million paper ballots and arresting key officials involved in the preparations. On Saturday, Civil Guard agents dismantled the communications systems used to connect voting stations, count the votes and vote online, leading the Spanish government to announce that holding the referendum would be "impossible."
Associated Press writer Alex Oller contributed to this report from Barcelona, and Gregory Katz and Frank Griffiths contributed from London.
This story has been corrected to show that the spelling of the IT manager's surname is Condeminas, not Conedeminas.