Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is visiting Catalonia a day after a huge pro-independence march, as the region prepares for an election next month.
His visit is the first since Madrid imposed direct rule on the region two weeks ago, following a referendum on independence on 1 October which the Spanish government considered illegal.
Mr Rajoy’s government dismissed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his government, firing dozens of officials, and called for new elections for 21 December.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest, waving banners with the Catalan flag and the slogan “SOS Democracy”. A general strike on Wednesday caused travel chaos.
On Saturday, some 750,000 people protested in Barcelona against the detention of Catalan regional officials on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
The protesters say the jailed officials are political prisoners.
“It’s been a shock for us,” Marc-Aitor Borras, whose sister Meritxell is among those jailed, told Sky News.
“Here it’s been a completely pacifist and civil movement, people going to vote and to express their feelings and their political opinions by voting which is normal in democracy. We never thought it would get to this point.”
Mr Puigdemont is currently in self-imposed exile in Belgium awaiting a hearing on possible extradition back to Spain after Madrid issued an EU-wide warrant.
He may have to fight the election from abroad if he is to avoid jail time in Spain.
Speaking to Sky News in an exclusive interview, he said he would accept the result of the vote, but expressed doubt Madrid would do the same if independence parties won.
“If the elections are held in normality and have the approval of citizens the results must always be recognised,” he said.
“I ask myself: is the Spanish government prepared to recognise a result that gives a victory to pro-independence forces, because this is the key.”
Mr Rajoy will not make a public appearance in Sunday’s visit to the region, and is due to attend a presentation by a candidate of his Popular Party.
The party may have a difficult job fighting the election: many Catalans have responded angrily to the Spanish reaction to the referendum, which included widely broadcast images of police violence against voters.
On the other hand, the referendum brought extreme instability to the region and 2,400 businesses based in Catalonia have moved their legal headquarters elsewhere.