Rajoy to kick off campaiging in Catalonia ahead of elections

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Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Sunday he wanted to return to a "democratic and free" Catalonia as he aimed to rally support for a unified Spain on his first visit to the turbulent region since it declared independence.

The sacked speaker of Catalonia's parliament left a prison near Madrid on Friday hours after supporters posted her bail of 150 000 euros ($175,000), ending her brief detention over the region's controversial independence drive.

Forcadell was one of several dismissed Catalan officials to be detained after their shock decision last month to declare the region of 7.5 million people independent from Spain.

After the declaration, Madrid dismissed Catalonia's government, dissolved parliament, suspended the region's autonomy and called new elections for the region next month.

The crisis was sparked by a disputed referendum held in Catalonia in October, in which the independence campaign won 92% of the vote, from a turnout of 43%.

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An overwhelming majority of those who voted in the referendum called for independence, but the vote was mostly boycotted by those who want to stay in Spain.

"Freedom for the political prisoners", protesters shouted as they marched along Avenue Marina from the beach to the Sagrada Familia church.

There were performances and speeches to the crowd.

Despite opposition to the early election imposed by Madrid as a way to resolve the impasse, the two leading pro-independence parties, PDeCAT of deposed leader Carles Puigdemont, and the ERC, have said they will participate.

In another development, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, condemned Catalonia's pro-independence leaders.