MORE than a million independence supporters gathered in the centre of Barcelona yesterday in a show of defiance against the Spanish Government.

They filled the city’s streets to mark La Diada – Catalonia’s National Day – just three weeks before a pro-independence referendum that Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government has declared illegal.

An hour before it was due to start the streets were already crowded, and shortly after midday almost 2000 packed coaches descended on the state capital.

One minute’s silence was held for the victims of the terrorist attack on Barcelona and Cambrils, before the mood sombre mood became one of excitement.

People representing all generations formed an enormous plus sign at the junction of two of Barcelona’s busiest streets – representing a positive vote for democracy and freedom.

La Diada was organised by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and language and cultural group Òmnium Cultural, whose president, Jordi Cuixart, told the crowds: “Voting has never been a crime. In spite of their fears and threats, we have our own laws based on international legislation.

“The Spanish courts no longer defend the collective interests of the Catalan people… They want to silence democracy.”

The celebrations came as tensions continued to rise between the ANC and Spain’s central government.

Over the weekend Spain’s civil guard raided several Catalan printing shops that were suspected of preparing material for the referendum.

The office of the weekly newspaper El Vallenc in the town of Valls was one of those raided by the gendarmes – but a group of about 300 people responded to an alert on social media, and mocked police by shouting slogans in favour of the referendum, while chanting: “Where are the ballot slips? Oh, where could they be?”

At one point the group cast a symbolic vote in one of their own ballot boxes.

Spain’s Constitutional Court last week imposed a legal block on the poll – which most Catalans want to go ahead – by suspending Catalonia’s referendum law. But Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his ruling coalition “Together for Yes” insist the October 1 vote is legal.

He said: “We all decide together about what belongs to all of us, which is our country.”

Meanwhile, Catalan officials say that postal voting by residents who are living abroad has already started.

Catalonia’s foreign affairs minister Raul Romeva said “the referendum has already started”, adding that “the Catalan community that lives abroad has already started to vote”.

Puigdemont added that if the Yes vote wins, Catalonia “will have won the right to be listened to” by the EU.