"If we don't sit down to talk this won't stop," Catalan regional president Quim Torra told The Associated Press, in an interview at the medieval palace in central Barcelona that houses the restive region's government.
He spoke after a week of huge peaceful protests — many followed by ugly riots in Spain's second biggest city and other northeastern towns — by people angered by the sentencing of nine leaders of their movement to prison for their role in a 2017 secession bid.
The street battles over five consecutive nights between radicals and police left 593 injured — nearly half of them police — and resulted in 194 arrests. Protesters burned hundreds of trash bins and used gasoline bombs, acid, chunks of pavement and other weapons to assault police. Even though the violence has waned in the past two days, authorities are concerned it could flare back up.
Torra criticized interim Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who is facing a national election on Nov. 10 in which the Catalan issue will be front and center, for not agreeing to meet him when he visited Barcelona to see injured police officers on Monday before returning to Madrid.
"(These) violent groups, which have caused scenes that disgust us greatly, which we condemn and reject (...) cannot be an excuse to not sit down and talk, and for Sánchez to not answer phone calls from the president of Catalonia," Torra said.
Ahead of his visit, Sánchez accused Torra in a letter of failing in his duty to protect his citizens. He also called on Torra, a fervent separatist whom critics accuse of expressing xenophobic ideas about Spaniards, to firmly condemn violence and to ensure the security and rights of the roughly one half of Catalonia's 7.5 million residents who want to remain part of Spain.
Torra has repeatedly called for "dialogue without conditions," trying to pave the way for Catalonia to have an authorized and binding vote on secession, despite Spanish governments rejecting such talks. Sánchez says a referendum would require changing the country's constitution, which requires a very wide majority in the national parliament.
Small crowds followed Sánchez on Monday to the police headquarters in Barcelona, which are often the target of violent protesters, and a hospital where a group of doctors and nurses shouted at the prime minister "Freedom for political prisoners!" and "Go away, go away!" according to videos that quickly spread on social media.
Torra, 56, is a corporate lawyer and book editor. He had only been a regional lawmaker a few weeks before predecessor Carles Puigdemont picked him as his successor in May 2018 to carry out his mandate from Belgium, where Puigdemont fled from Spain in 2017.
Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, who does not support secession, has accused Torra of caring more about the success of his movement than about public security. Other political adversaries have criticized him for not seeming to go after groups that have apparently contributed to the recent chaos that has rocked the wealthy region.
Those groups include the new on-line separatist platform Tsunami Democratic, which uses messaging services like Telegram and has developed its own application to issue orders by an anonymous leader for its followers to carry out acts of what it calls non-violent civil disobedience.
Its call last Monday to shut down the Barcelona airport caused tens of thousands of separatists to surround the main terminal, where a battle broke out between police and radicals that lasted into the night.
Torra defended the Tsunami and said he cannot understand why a Spanish judge has opened an investigation into Tsunami Democratic on suspicions of terrorism. "I have only seen on its website that the Tsunami Democratic always upholds the exercise of non-violence," he said.
Torra also said that the violence has not altered his conviction that the jailing of seven Catalan separatists in September after Spanish police suspected them of planning to make and use explosives was unjustified.
"I maintain my belief (...) that the rights of these citizens had been violated," he said. Torra acknowledged that the outbreak of violence by a minority of separatists is threatening the reputation of their cause, which Torra and others believe will be crucial in winning international backing.
"We can't allow a movement that for 10-12 years had always protested peacefully and in large numbers to now be tarnished," he said.
AP writers Aritz Parra in Madrid and Renata Brito in Barcelona contributed.