Thousands rally in Barcelona, waving flags and banners in support of Catalonia’s independence from Spain

BARCELONA, Spain -- Tens of thousands of people took to the streets Saturday in Barcelona, waving flags and banners in support of Catalonia's independence from Spain.

The rally unfolded just hours after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced his government would invoke rarely used constitutional powers to remove Catalonia's leaders.

Demonstrators shouted, "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!" and "Rajoy, Rajoy, so you know we are leaving!"

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont was among those at the protest. He was scheduled to speak later Saturday.

The unprecedented constitutional measures -- intended to end Catalan leaders' independence bid -- call under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution and would have to be sent to the Spanish Senate for approval. This would happen within the next week, Rajoy said.

The Madrid government announced Thursday that it would invoke Article 155, a provision that allows it to suspend the autonomy of the Catalan regional administration.

The move follows weeks of division triggered by a banned independence referendum on October 1.

Puigdemont on Thursday threatened that his wealthy northeastern region could formally declare independence if the Spanish government did not engage in dialogue.

Move to oust in hands of Senate

Under the measures proposed Saturday by Rajoy, Puigdemont, his vice president and ministers would be suspended and replaced by the administration in Madrid, where necessary.

"The government had to enforce Article 155. It wasn't our desire, nor our intention. It never was," Rajoy said. "But in this situation, no government of any democratic country can accept that the law is ignored."

In undertaking these steps, the government has four goals, Rajoy said. These are: to return to legality; to restore normality and coexistence in Catalonia; to continue the region's economic recovery; and to hold elections under normal conditions.

"The autonomy is not suspended, nor the government," he said. "People are removed who put the government outside the law, outside the constitution and outside statutes."

New elections should be called for Catalonia within six months, Rajoy said, adding that he wants it to happen as soon as possible.

"The only way for Article 155 to be stopped is if the Senate votes it down," he said.

Rajoy's Popular Party holds a majority in the Senate. Two Spanish opposition parties, PSOE and Ciudadanos, have also said they will back the Article 155 measures, Rajoy said.

Senate Vice President Pedro Sanz said the Senate would hold a session Friday morning to vote on Article 155.

Spain's national prosecutor's office told CNN it is preparing to file charges of rebellion if Catalan authorities declare a declaration of independence. It did not name Puigdemont or any other officials as possible defendants.

Protesters to rally

The crisis threatens to fracture Spain, one of the European Union's principal members, and has prompted mass public protests in Catalonia and elsewhere.

The immediate response of Catalan politicians appeared to be one of defiance.

"In the face of totalitarianism, today more than ever, we defend democracy and civil and political rights, you will find us there," Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras said via Twitter.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colao tweeted: "Rajoy has suspended the Catalan self-government for which so many people fought. A serious attack against the rights and freedom of many, here and everywhere."

Puigdemont said Thursday that 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.

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

Puigdemont also demanded Spain end its "repression" of Catalan separatist leaders, two of whom were taken into custody on suspicion of sedition earlier in the week.

More than 2.25 million people turned out to vote on October 1, 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 referendum.

Violent scenes unfolded as national police sought to prevent people from casting their ballots.

Rajoy urges unity

Rajoy said Saturday that Puigdemont had repeatedly rejected opportunities to talk to Madrid before calling the banned referendum and insisted his own government was acting to protect the interests of all Spaniards, especially Catalans.

"I am fully aware this moment is difficult but all together we are going to overcome (it), as we have previously overcome very complicated events throughout our history," he said.

Rajoy also warned that an independent Catalonia would be outside the European Union and the World Trade Organization, with dire consequences for the region's economic health.

A combination of higher tariffs, lack of access to credit and "disproportionate" inflation would lead to "impoverishment of the Catalan economy of between 25 and 30%," he said.

Amid the uncertainty, businesses have already started to move their legal headquarters out of Catalonia, Spain's economic powerhouse. According to a tweet Friday by the National Association of Registers, 1,185 companies began that process between October 2 and 19.

Spain's King Felipe VI said Friday that Spain was facing an "unacceptable" attempt at secession and that Catalonia must continue to be a central part of the nation.

EU leaders have backed the Madrid government in its handling of the crisis, which Rajoy insists is an internal matter.

European Council President Donald Tusk described the Catalonia situation as "concerning" but said there was "no space for EU intervention," in remarks Thursday in Brussels.