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Spain’s government kicked off a crisis cabinet meeting on Saturday as it prepares to seize powers from Catalonia’s separatist executive in an unprecedented move aimed at stopping the northeastern region’s independence drive.

During the meeting, which started around 10:00 am (0800 GMT), Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his ministers will decide on what powers to take away from the wealthy region, which currently enjoys wide autonomy including control over its own policing, education and healthcare.

The measures take the country into uncharted legal waters, and come just a day after Madrid won powerful backing from the king and the EU in its battle to keep the country together.

King Felipe VI on Friday blasted what he said was an “unacceptable secession attempt” and said the crisis sparked by the region’s banned October 1 independence referendum must be resolved “through legitimate democratic institutions”.

“We do not want to give up that which we have built together,” he pleaded.

Madrid enjoys constitutional powers to wrest back control of rebellious regions in one of the Western world’s most decentralised nations, but it has never used them.

Autonomy is a hugely sensitive issue in semi-autonomous Catalonia, which saw its powers taken away under Spain’s military dictatorship. Home to 7.5 million people, the region fiercely defends its own language and culture.

– ‘Critical point’ –

There are fears of unrest if Madrid seeks to impose direct rule of any kind, and Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has said such a move could push regional lawmakers to declare unilateral independence.

But Rajoy said Friday that Spain had reached a “critical point” after weeks of political limbo and that his government had to act to stop the rule of law being “liquidated”.

Rajoy is likely to announce plans to take control of Catalonia’s 16,000-strong police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, whose leader Josep Lluis Trapero could face up to 15 years in jail on sedition charges for failing to contain separatist protests ahead of the referendum.

Madrid could also seek to force new elections — its preferred solution to Spain’s most protracted political crisis since it returned to democracy in 1977 — as early as January.

Rajoy is due to hold a press conference early Saturday afternoon to announce his plans, which must pass through the Senate where his conservative Popular Party holds a majority — a process that would take about a week.

Speaking on Friday night at the Princess of Asturias Awards — Spain’s answer to the Nobels — King Felipe described Catalonia as “an essential part of 21st century Spain”.

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