New Catalonia leader pledges secession within 18 months

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Carles Puigdemont reacts during his vote of confidence at the regional Parliament in BarcelonaImage source, EPA
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Mr Puigdemont has said that that he wants to attract more supporters to the independence cause

The new leader of the government in the Spanish region of Catalonia has pledged to continue his predecessor Artur Mas's plans to secede within 18 months.

Carles Puigdemont was speaking in the regional assembly ahead of a vote that confirmed him in office by 70 votes in favour to 63 against.

On Saturday Mr Mas abandoned efforts to regain the regional presidency after another party refused to support him.

Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy has meanwhile pledged to fight for national unity.

"The government won't allow a single act that could harm the unity and sovereignty of Spain," he said in Madrid.

Image source, AP
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Mr Puigdemont's investiture in the Catalan parliament was welcomed by pro-independence supporters
Image source, Reuters
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Artur Mas agreed to step down as Catalan regional president after being in power since 2010

The Spanish prime minister - whose own position is unclear since inconclusive elections in December - has insisted that whoever forms the next national government should have "an ample parliamentary base with the stability and capacity to face the separatist challenge".

"We have known how to set aside our differences to defend the unity of the nation," Mr Rajoy said on national TV.

The future of Catalonia's independence movement had been uncertain since regional parliamentary elections in September.

The pro-independence parties that triumphed in the polls bickered over who should lead the new local government.

But addressing the assembly on Sunday, Mr Puigdemont pledged to end the divisions.

"There are many [supporters of independence], true, there are many more than there used to be, more than there were 20 years ago," he said.

"[But] in this phase we have to gain total democratic legitimacy, we need more [supporters] and I call on everyone."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Spain's acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has pledged to preserve national unity at all costs

On Saturday Mr Mas agreed to withdraw his candidacy for the regional presidency because his nomination led to disagreements between the anti-capitalist CUP party and the Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) alliance.

That in turn has cleared the way for Mr Puigdemont to claim the leadership.

In November, the Catalan parliament voted to start the secession process - a move declared unconstitutional by Mr Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP), which ran the country before last month's election.

Catalonia is a highly industrialised and populous region in Spain's north-east that accounts for about a fifth of the country's economic output.

Both the PP and the Socialists (PSOE), who came first and second respectively in Spain's general election, oppose Catalan secession.