BARCELONA, Spain - In what is set to be the last protest before independence, thousands of Catalan separatists rallied on Monday, demanding their region break away from Spain.
The rally came in a show of strength three weeks ahead of an independence referendum banned by Madrid.
Protesters, draped in red, yellow and blue separatist flags held banners reading "Goodbye Spain" as they marched through central Barcelona.
According to organizers, about 400,000 people had signed up to join the demonstration in Barcelona, which is part of an escalating struggle between the wealthy northeastern province and Spain's central government.
The protest incidentally also coincided with Catalonia's national day, or the ‘Diada,’ which marks the fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714.
This had led to the region's subsequent loss of institutions and freedoms.
Separatists have been pressing for an independent state since 2012.
Demonstrators formed the shape of a giant "X" by gathering on the Paseo de Gracia and Aragon avenues in central Barcelona to represent the mark Catalans will make on their ballots during the referendum.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Catalonia's pro-independence president Carles Puigdemont said, "There are 20 days left (until the referendum) and the mobilization that prompted this process remains intact.”
However, those that are against independence complained that the day meant for all Catalans had been hijacked by the separatists.
Ines Arrimadas, the leader in Catalonia of the anti-independence Ciudadanos party, said on Spanish television, “The theme of today's protest is 'Diada of the Yes’. That means that those of us who aren't in favor of independence cannot participate.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy calling "for a Diada of freedom, cohabitation, and respect for all Catalans.”
Rajoy’s conservative government, which is fiercely against the vote, has argued that the vote violates the Constitution, which states that only central authorities can call a referendum.
Catalonia's regional government has vowed to declare independence within 48 hours and set about building a sovereign state if the "Yes" side wins the vote.
However, with Spain's central government promising to block the referendum, the pro-independence camp is keen to show that it can rally its troops.
Faced with a legal challenge, Spain's Constitutional Court suspended a referendum law that was fast-tracked through Catalonia's regional parliament on Wednesday.
Earlier in July, a survey by the Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies revealed that 41.1 percent of the public backed independence while 49.9 percent rejected it.
However, about 70 percent wanted a referendum, however, to settle the question once and for all.