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Catalan president seeks way around independence symbols ban

media A banner reading "Free political prisoners and those exiled" bearing a white ribbon with a red brush stroke replaces an older one bearing a yellow ribbon on the balcony of the regional government's headquarters in Barcelona AFP

After Spain ordered Catalonia to remove pro-independence symbols from public buildings, Catalan president Quim Torra responded Thursday by replacing a banner with a yellow ribbon outside the regional government's headquarters with another one.

Since coming to power in June 2018 a large banner has hung on the Barcelona building featuring a yellow ribbon -- a symbol of protest against the imprisonment and trial of separatist leaders for their role in a failed attempt to declare independence in 2017 -- along with the message, "Free political prisoners and exiles".

But earlier this month Spain's election board ordered the Catalan government to remove yellow ribbons and other pro-independence symbols from government buildings ahead of a general election on April 28, arguing they were partisan.

After ignoring two deadlines imposed by the board, the Catalan government finally decided to remove the symbols on Thursday.

Workers covered the original banner at the Catalan government headquarters with another with the exact same message. But the yellow ribbon has been replaced with a white one with a diagonal red stripe -- still a subtle nod to separatism as it was used in the past by a grassroots pro-independence group.

In a statement issued on Wednesday night, Torra said he would not obey the election board but instead follow the advice of Catalonia's regional ombudsman, which had also recommended that the symbols be removed.

Torra faces a possible fine, or even disobedience charges if he failed to comply with the election board's order to remove the symbols.

Speaking to reporters as he arrived in Brussels for a European Union leaders summit, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the Catalan government needed to "respect the neutrality" of public institutions which belong to "everyone".

The election board will meet later on Thursday to decide on possible sanctions against the Catalan government.

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