BARCELONA, Spain -- Catalonia's ousted leader called for peaceful opposition to Spain's decision to take direct control of the region, saying Saturday that he and other regional officials fired by the central government will keep "working to build a free country."
Carles Puigdemont's comments, made in a recorded televised address that was broadcast as he sat in a cafe in his hometown of Girona, were a veiled refusal to accept his Cabinet's dismissal as ordered by central authorities.
They came a day after one of the most tumultuous days in Spain's recent history, when Catalan lawmakers in Barcelona passed a declaration of independence Friday for the prosperous northeastern region, and the national parliament in Madrid approved unprecedented constitutional measures to halt the secessionist drive.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also dissolved the regional parliament and called a new regional election to be held on Dec. 21.
In his televised statement, Puigdemont said only the regional parliament can elect or dismiss the Catalan government, vowing to "continue working to build a free country."
"The best way we have to defend the achievements to date is the democratic opposition to the application of Article 155," Puigdemont said in reference to the constitutional clause that gave Madrid direct control of affairs in Catalonia.
Despite his defiant tone and the use of the official Catalan government emblem, the Catalan and European Union flags but no sign of the Spanish one, some political commentators saw his mention of "democratic opposition" as laying the groundwork for political campaigning for the regional election in less than two months.
"Our will is to continue working to fulfill the democratic mandates and at the same time seek the maximum stability and tranquility," Puigdemont said. Separatists argue that a controversial victory in a banned Oct. 1 referendum legitimizes them to split from Spain.
Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan history at Cardiff University in Wales, said the statement was "vague and imprecise, certainly not like the president of a new country."
"They have led 2 million Catalans to believe in independence, so it's a big problem to tell them now that it's actually difficult to build a state when Spain has the upper hand of the law on its side," Dowling said. "They are trapped by their own rhetoric."
Spain's government has said they could be charged with usurping others' functions if they refuse to obey, which could throw the region into further turmoil by prolonging a monthlong standoff.
In comments that were met late Friday with jeers and whistles of disapproval by secession supporters in Barcelona, Rajoy said the declaration of independence "not only goes against the law but is a criminal act."
Spanish prosecutors say top Catalan officials could face rebellion charges as soon as Monday.
The regional economy, which accounts for about a fifth of Spanish gross domestic product, is also under threat as more companies leave amid the threat of civil unrest.
Refusing to comment on Puigdemont's televised address, Rajoy's office said Saturday that his actions will be a judicial affair from now on and that the Dec. 21 election would be the way "to return dignity to the Catalan institutions."
Beyond any possible resistance from top Catalan officials, it's unclear how Rajoy's government in Madrid will be able to exert its control at lower levels of Catalonia's vast regional administration.
Catalonia had secured the ability to govern itself in many areas, including education, health and policing, since democracy returned to Spain after the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.
Some among Catalonia's roughly 200,000 civil servants have said they will refuse to obey orders from Madrid. They risk being punished or even fired under the special powers granted to central authorities by the nation's Senate on Friday.
Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria will be Rajoy's point person in running Catalonia until the new regional election. She will coordinate other ministries that take over functions of Catalonia's regional departments, including finances and security, and appoint officials to implement orders from Madrid.
After being granted unprecedented powers by the Spanish Senate, the central government, in the early-morning hours Saturday published lists of Catalan officials, alongside their advisers, who were being fired.
In one of the first moves, Spain's Interior Ministry published an order to demote Josep Lluis Trapero from his position as head of the regional Mossos d'Esquadra police in Catalonia. He was allowed to remain as commissar, but he later released a statement saying he was resigning from the force.
Pere Soler, ousted director-general of the Catalan police force and Trapero's boss, sent a letter to his officers, expressing regret over his removal and thanking them for their work.
Trapero, who is facing possible sedition charges after he was accused of failing to stop protesters last month from encircling national police officers, also wrote to his colleagues. He reminded them that their task was to "guarantee the safety of everybody" in the coming days, should the political crisis spur more unrest.
Dozens of other Catalan officials were expected to be fired, but Enric Millo, the current representative of the central government in Catalonia, told Catalunya Radio on Saturday that he expected Madrid to make "the minimum possible" staff changes.
After a night when a third of the region partied and a third slammed its shutters, people in the street were as divided as ever -- between supporters of independence, opponents who view secession as a historic blunder and the many in the middle who aren't really sure.
As Puigdemont spoke Saturday, throngs of Spaniards gathered in central Madrid -- many of them waving flags, some wrapped in them -- to protest Catalonia's unilateral declaration of independence.
"We are resisting xenophobia," one man said into a microphone, before shouting, "Long live Catalonia, long live the king, long live Spain."
The crowd chanted: "Don't lie to us, Catalonia. You are part of Spain."
Even among those whose hearts felt pride and joy upon hearing a new republic declared, their heads sensed that Catalonia was not really a sovereign state. Far from it.
Many expressed anxiety.
Joaquim Bayo, 87, a retired salesman, said he had already heard nervous jokes about when Spain will send tanks into the Barcelona streets.
"Look, we're not such revolutionaries. We will have to wait. So, they announced a new republic. Good! If you look at history, we had one republic that lasted three years, one that lasted three days. Let's see how long this one lasts."
Jose Zaragoza, 54, a businessman, said, "Today I woke up very happy, the first day of the republic, which was chosen in a legal way -- by politicians chosen in a legal way, backed by a legal referendum."
He said he was surprised to see the Spanish flag still flying over Catalan government offices.
Information for this article was contributed by Aritz Parra of The Associated Press; by Raphael Minder, Patrick Kingsley and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura of The New York Times; by William Booth of The Washington Post; and by Rodrigo Orihuela, Esteban Duarte and Maria Tadeo of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 10/29/2017