Spain moved Monday to put Catalonia's secessionist leaders on trial for alleged crimes that carry maximum sentences of decades in prison, and some of the ousted government figures went to the Belgian capital, where an official said they might be able to request asylum.
As Catalonia spent its first working day under the direct rule of Madrid, following its regional parliament's unsuccessful efforts to create a new country, Spain was venturing into new political terrain amid an unprecedented crisis.
An early regional election on Dec. 21 is on the horizon, when both separatists and unionists will present candidates, but before that the country is likely to endure weeks of political uncertainty.
Cranking up the tension, Spain's state prosecutor said he would seek rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges against members of the region's secessionist government.
Chief prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said he would ask judges for preventive measures against the politicians and the governing body of the Catalan parliament that allowed a vote to declare independence on Friday. Maza didn't specify if those measures would include their arrest and detention before trial.
The rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges carry maximum sentences of 30, 15 and six years in prison, respectively. It wasn't immediately clear when judges would rule on the prosecutors' request.
Those facing charges include ousted regional leader Carles Puigdemont, and his No. 2, Oriol Junqueras, as well as Catalan parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell — high-profile figures in the region of 7.5 million people and its capital, Barcelona.
U.S. & World
Puigdemont's whereabouts was a mystery early Monday. The uncertainty continued the game of political cat-and-mouse with which the Catalan leader has tormented the national government since he announced almost two months ago that Catalonia would hold an independence referendum on Oct. 1 — a ballot the government rejected as illegal.
It later emerged Puigdemont had traveled to Brussels, a trip that was confirmed by Spanish officials and a Catalan member of the European Parliament, though Puigdemont was not seen in public.
Belgian Asylum State Secretary Theo Francken said over the weekend that it would "not be unrealistic" for Puigdemont to request asylum. Spanish media reported that five other members of Puigdemont's government went with him to the Belgian capital.
Belgian lawyer Paul Bekaert told VRT network that Puigdemont had consulted him, adding "he is not in Belgium to specifically ask for political asylum. That is not decided yet."
Belgium allows asylum requests by citizens of other European Union nations, and in the past, some Basque separatists were not extradited to Spain while they sought asylum, causing years of friction.
Still, it would be exceptional for Belgium to grant asylum to another EU citizen based on arguments that repression would endanger the full exercise of one's rights.
By targeting Puigdemont and some of his entourage, Spanish authorities apparently hoped to send a message that attempts to break up Spain will not be tolerated. The country has 17 autonomous regions, including Catalonia, but the constitution says Spain is "indivisible."
After Catalonia's regional parliament proclaimed independence from Spain in a secret ballot on Friday the Spanish government fired the government and regional police chief, dissolved the legislature and called the early election.
Puigdemont has vowed a peaceful and "democratic opposition" to his Cabinet's dismissal.
The prosecutor's announcement in Madrid came as Catalonia's civil servants returned to work for the first time since Spain imposed direct control on Friday. There were no immediate signs of open disobedience and separatist parties agreed to run in the new elections, in a move that implies acknowledging that they can't deliver a viable independent state.
In addition to the rebellion charges, Spain's government has said the fired leaders could be charged with usurping others' functions if they refuse to leave their government jobs.
The Catalan parliament was formally dissolved Monday and Forcadell, its speaker, was to head a transitional committee of lawmakers until the regional election is held.
Both parties in the coalition that ruled Catalonia until its government was disbanded last week indicated they were ready to contest the early regional election, dismissing fears the pro-independence parties might boycott the ballot to deny it legitimacy. Puigdemont's center-right PDeCAT party vowed to defeat pro-union political forces in Catalonia.
As dozens of journalists, curious onlookers and bemused tourists gathered in the square outside the Gothic government palace in central Barcelona, residents expressed confusion about who was actually in charge of Catalonia.
"I don't know — the Catalan government says they are in charge, but the Spanish government says they are," said Cristina Guillen, an employee at a nearby bag shop. "So I have no idea, really.
"What I really think is that nobody is in charge right now," she said.
At least one portrait of Puigdemont was still hanging on a wall inside the Catalan government's Generalitat building.
Spanish authorities said deposed officials would be allowed to take their personal belongings from official buildings. Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said Monday that the government was giving the separatist politicians "a few hours" to do so because the goal was "to recover normality in a discreet way and under the principle of minimal intervention" by central authorities.
Casert reported from Brussels. Associated Press writers Jill Lawless and Elena Becatoros in Barcelona and Carlo Piovano in London contributed to this report.