People wave 'Esteladas' (pro-independence Catalan flags) as they gather during a pro-independence demonstration, on September 11, 2017 in Barcelona during the National Day of Catalonia, the "Diada."
Hundreds of thousands of Catalans were expected to rally to demand their region break away from Spain, in a show of strength three weeks ahead of a secession referendum banned by Madrid. The protest coincides with Catalonia's national day, the "Diada," which commemorates the fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714 and the region's subsequent loss of institutions and freedoms.
 / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA        (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
How Catalonia's independence crisis unfolded
02:24 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The Spanish government said Thursday it would begin the process to impose direct rule on Catalonia in an unprecedented move to crush the region’s independence bid.

In a statement from Madrid, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said it would invoke Article 155 of the constitution, a provision that allows the central government to suspend the autonomy of the Catalan regional administration.

Rajoy’s Cabinet will meet on Saturday to agree measures to “restore the constitutional order” in Catalonia, where a banned referendum on independence took place earlier this month. The plan will then be put before the Senate, where Rajoy’s Popular Party has a majority, for approval.

The statement did not spell out what steps would be taken under Article 155, but the provision gives Madrid the power to take over the running of Catalan institutions and force new elections. It has never been invoked before.

Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont delivers a speech in Barcelona on October 15.

The announcement came minutes after Catalan President Carles Puigdemont threatened that the region could formally declare independence if the Spanish government did not engage in dialogue.

Puigdemont also demanded Spain end its “repression” of Catalan separatist leaders, in a letter sent shortly before a Madrid-imposed deadline for the region to drop its independence bid. Two leaders of the Catalan independence movement were taken into custody on suspicion of sedition earlier this week.

Puigdemont: Madrid ‘avoiding dialogue’

Puigdemont had already failed to meet an earlier deadline to clarify whether his administration had officially declared independence from Spain.

“Despite all our efforts and our will for dialogue, the fact that your only answer is canceling our autonomy indicates that that you do not understand the problem and do not wish to talk,” Puigdemont wrote Thursday.

If Madrid “persists in blocking dialogue and the repression continues,” the Catalan parliament reserved the right to formalize a declaration of independence that was suspended on October 10, he said.

At that session, Puigdemont said that Catalonia had “earned the right” to become an independent republic in its October 1 independence referendum, which was banned by Spain’s Constitutional Court. But he suspended the effects of the declaration to allow for talks.

More than 2.25 million people turned out to cast their ballot in the referendum, with the regional government reporting that 90% of voters were in favor of a split from Madrid. But the turnout was low – around 43% of the voter roll – which Catalan officials blamed on the central government’s efforts to stop the vote.

Violent scenes unfolded as national police sought to prevent people from casting their ballots, leaving hundreds of people injured.

Divisions exposed

The Spanish government opened sedition investigations into two Catalan separatist leaders, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, and the head of the Catalan police force, Josep Lluís Trapero.

Sanchez and Cuixart were taken into custody earlier this week, while Trapero’s passport was confiscated.

Spain’s prosecutor’s office alleges that Sanchez and Cuixart were not only responsible for demonstrations held on September 20 and 21, but also key in planning the October 1 referendum on independence.

The crisis has caused widespread uncertainty in Catalonia, a wealthy region in Spain’s northeast, and prompted some companies to move their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain.

It has also exposed deep divisions between those who back the separatist movement and those who wish to remain part of Spain. Many people from both sides have taken to the streets to make their views heard.

Support for Madrid

Rajoy traveled to Brussels later Thursday for an EU leaders’ meeting.

EU leaders have backed the Madrid government’s opposition to Catalan independence and its assertion that the unfolding crisis is an internal matter for Spain.

“We are monitoring the situation very closely and support the position of the Spanish government which is also a cross-party position,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters as she arrived in Brussels.

“Of course this is concerning and we hope there are solutions here which are based on the Spanish constitution.”

CNN’s Hilary McGann, Simon Cullen and Laura Goehler contributed to this report.