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Catalonia's ousted leader has fled to Belgium

Days after declaring independence, the ousted president of Catalonia showed up in Brussels. The Spanish central government has assumed control of the region.

Madrid And Barcelona Vie For Control In Catalan Crisis Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

The ousted president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, has apparently fled to Belgium in the wake of the Spanish region’s disastrous bid for independence — just hours after Spanish Attorney General José Manuel Maza called for charges to be filed against Catalonia’s secessionist leaders for sedition and rebellion. If convicted, Puigdemont and his colleagues could face up to 30 years in jail.

Speaking from Brussels on Tuesday morning, Puigdemont spoke to the world in his first major address since Catalonia declared independence from Spain last Friday, throwing the region into chaos. “I am not here to demand political asylum,” Puigdemont told a crowd of reporters at a raucous press conference. “I am here in Brussels as the capital of Europe. I am here in order to act with freedom and safety."

He did not indicate when — or even if — he would return to Barcelona. Instead, he said, “We are seeking guarantees from the Madrid government; on this will depend whether we return to Catalonia. We can’t avoid the rule of law, and we won’t shy away from our responsibilities, but we do need guarantees."

For several hours on Monday, it was unclear what had happened to the ousted Catalan leaders. Rumors swirled. Some reports wondered if Puigdemont was preparing a “government in exile,” while others said he was preparing to ask Belgium for asylum. Neither of those stories, it turns out, was true.

On Monday the Spanish central government began to enforce Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which gives the central government the right to take away regional powers in order to enforce the indivisibility of the country of Spain. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dissolved the Catalan parliament and took control of the Catalan police force, installing a new police chief.

A takeover of one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions has never happened before. Which means that Catalonia and Spain are now in totally uncharted territory.

Spain’s headache began with an illegal referendum

All of this comes on the heels of the most chaotic month Spain has experienced in decades. On October 1, the Catalan regional government barreled ahead with an independence referendum the Spanish central government had declared illegal. The day was marred by violence: The Spanish civil guard came into Catalonia to forcibly repel voters from voting stations.

Violence aside, the region was deeply divided on the referendum. Puigdemont used the results of the vote to tell the world he had won the right to declare independence. But only 43 percent of the eligible voters in Catalonia went to the ballot box on October 1; many voters avoided a referendum they felt had been imposed upon them by a slim majority of secessionists who held sway in the Catalan parliament.

Since that first day of October, Barcelona has been rocked by protests by both supporters and opponents of independence. And for weeks now the Catalan leaders have tried to force Rajoy to sit down for dialogue. Rajoy refused, again and again. He demanded instead that they renounce their bid for independence — or else he would trigger Article 155.

Instead of renouncing their hope for independence, the Catalan regional parliament declared it would secede. By choosing to flee to Brussels on Monday, Puigdemont appears to be trying to pin the future of Catalonia on the hope that his region could become an independent country and member of the European Union. But that’s something EU leaders have been quick to shoot down, as no one in the EU leadership is interested in seeing other secessionist movements challenge their central governments.

New elections have been now called for December in Catalonia.

Puigdemont called upon supporters of independence to take to the streets after Friday’s declaration of independence.

But his supporters were not the only ones to head the call. On Sunday, some 300,000 protestors did take the streets of Barcelona. But they did so under the Spanish flag — demanding not secession but unity.

Watch: The rise of Catalonia’s independence movement