A year after jihadist attacks in Catalonia killed 16 people, Barcelona paid homage to the victims Friday without managing to set aside bitter divisions over independence.
Families of the victims had called for a “truce” in the political row over Catalonia’s failed independence drive last October, which quickly overshadowed the bloody attacks that shook Spain.
But before the ceremony began, separatist activists hung up a large banner on Barcelona’s central Plaza Catalunya reading: “The Spanish king is not welcome in the Catalan countries” with an upside-down picture of the monarch, who took a hardline stance against the secession bid.
King Felipe VI, his wife, Queen Letizia, and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez are set to join families of the victims on that very plaza later for the commemoration.
Fourteen people died — including two young children aged three and seven — and over 100 were injured in a van attack on Las Ramblas near Plaza Catalunya, the seaside city’s most famous street, on August 17, 2017.
During his escape, the 22-year-old Moroccan attacker also stabbed to death a young man before stealing his car.
Hours later, a car carrying five of his accomplices sped into Cambrils some 120 kilometres (75 miles) south.
The five occupants of the Audi A3 jumped out and went on a stabbing spree, killing a woman, before they were shot dead by police.
Separatist organisations are staging their own ceremonies in honour of the victims to avoid being next to the king.
Last year at a protest in Barcelona against the attacks, the monarch had been jeered by some separatists.
On Twitter, Sanchez stressed the need for “the unity of all of Spanish society”, which “makes us stronger in the face of terror and barbarism.”
‘Thought I was dying’
On the eve of the anniversary, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau paid emotional homage to the victims, her eyes welling with tears as she read out the names of the 16 people who lost their lives.
“We have not given up on our values and beliefs, which one year later are stronger than ever,” she said.
“We are, and we will be a city of peace, a courageous city that fights terrorism with love.”
Before the ceremony, which begins at 10:30 am (0830 GMT), flowers were laid on a pavement mosaic in the centre of Las Ramblas designed by Barcelona-born artist Joan Miro — the spot where the van came to a stop.
“I don’t remember anything about the attacker, I only saw him stabbing me. He left the knife stuck in my face, it plunged 15 centimetres (six inches) into my head.
“He carved my tonsils, my carotid, my vocal cords, my tongue… I honestly thought I was dying,” said Ruben Guinazu, 55, one of the victims of the Cambrils attack.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks but investigators have not found any evidence that the cell of young men who carried them out had any international links.
Instead they believe an imam in the mountain town of Ripoll located about 100 kilometres north of Barcelona indoctrinated a group of youths of Moroccan origin.
The cell the imam formed was making bombs at an abandoned house which police believe they intended to use to strike the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, the city’s Camp Nou stadium or the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
But the explosives they were using accidently went off on August 16, destroying the house and prompting the cell to improvise a vehicle attack similar to the ones carried out in other cities such as Nice and London.