THOUSANDS of marchers took to the streets of Barcelona yesterday staging a counter-protest to the pro-independence demonstrations that have rocked Catalonia in recent days.

It’s the first mass rally in favour of the region remaining in Spain since the country’s Supreme Court jailed nine pro-independence leaders for sedition earlier this month.

Organisers, Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), suggested the turnout was around 400,000, though police said attendance was closer to 80,000.

“We feel the need to shout that Catalonia is a part of Spain,” truck driver Francisco Astorga Vasco told the Associated Press.

“They are trying to make it look like Catalonia is not Spain, and that is not true. Not in the past, not in the present, and not in the plans we have for our future.”

Organisers said they wanted the rally – under the slogan “for coexistence, democracy and Catalonia” – to show the world that the “silent majority” want to remain in Spain.

“That is an important message for Catalonia, Spain and the world,” said SCC chairman Fernando Sánchez Costa.

One poster, written in English, read: “We are Catalonians too, stop this madness!!”

But the protest was far smaller than a pro-independence rally on Saturday, which police said had been attended by 350,000.

There, Catalan National Assembly president Elisenda Paluzie, told supporters: “We cannot accept that (the prisoners) have been condemned to terms of nine to 13 years for defending the self-determination of Catalans.”

“It is time to sit down and talk,” one protester told Reuters. “I think it is time for the state to find a solution because it seems that this has no end and we are always at the same point. We have come here because we are fed up with so much repression that we have suffered from the state.”

“We have always defended non-violence,” said another. “What is happening in Barcelona is not a reflection of us, we separatists are not violent, we want our country, we want to be free.”

Mayors of 814 out of the region’s 947 local authorities gathered at the regional government’s headquarters to meet Catalan President Quim Torra.

As the mayors chanted “independence”, Torra said Catalans must unite to oppose “repression” and “force the Spanish state to talk”.

However, though the day started peacefully it ended in clashes between police and the Committees for the Defence of the Republic network, who urge direct action in support of the imprisoned politicians.

Initially the demonstrators volleyed plastic balls at officers stationed outside the National Police’s headquarters in Barcelona.

Reports suggest some in the crowd then threw rocks, bottles and flares.

Police responded with batons and rubber bullets.

Six people were hospitalised, including a photographer for the Reuters news agency who was hit in the stomach by a bullet.

There are just two weeks until Spain’s general election, which could lead to a minority government, and could see the Catalan question play a major part in any coalition negotiations.

Around 20,000 supporters of the far-right Vox party rallied in the Spanish capital Madrid on Saturday to hear calls for a harder line on the separatists.

Party leader Santiago Abascal told the crowd: “Spain isn’t up for discussion; Spain is to be defended at all costs.”

“Faced with criminal separatism, there is only Vox,” he added.