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Catalans return to work after Spain takes charge of region

BARCELONA, Spain — Catalonia's civil servants returned to work Monday for the first time since Spain's central government rejected an independence declaration by firing the region's elected leaders and taking direct control.

Speculation raged about the whereabouts of ousted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his deposed Cabinet, whose reaction will be key to whether Madrid's takeover will be smooth or face opposition, deepening a month-long political crisis.

As staff arrived at the headquarters of the Catalan government in Barcelona, Puigdemont posted a photo on Instagram of a courtyard at the seat of the regional presidency building.

Both the Catalan and Spanish national flags waved from the top of the building.

The ambiguous Instagram post, accompanied by the words "Good morning" in Catalan and a smiley emoticon, left many guessing whether Puigdemont was inside the building. There was no indication of when the photo was taken.

Puigdemont is likely to be accused of rebellion on Monday for pushing ahead with secession. Spain's government has said the ousted Catalan leaders could be charged with usurping others' functions if they refuse to comply with their firing.

Catalonia's regional parliament proclaimed independence from Spain in a secret ballot Friday. The Spanish government dissolved the legislature, fired the government and regional police chief and called a new election for Dec. 21.

The vote to secede came after an Oct. 1 referendum in of independence that was deemed illegal by Spain's court.

Puigdemont has vowed peaceful and "democratic opposition" to his Cabinet's dismissal, but he hasn't clarified if that means accepting an early regional election as a way out of the deadlock.

Separatist parties and grassroots groups have spoken of waging a campaign of disobedience to hamper the efforts by central authorities to run the region.

A key factor will be how Catalonia's estimated 200,000 public workers would react to their bosses' dismissal, and whether any stay away from work in protest.

Secession moves by this wealthy northeastern region of 7.5 million have tipped Spain into its deepest crisis in decades.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands took part in an anti-independence demonstration in Barcelona, calling for Catalonia to remain in Spain and backing Rajoy's use of unprecedented powers to seize wrest control from the pro-independence regional administration.

"We won't let Spain be torn apart into pieces," read one banner. "The awakening of a silenced nation," read another.

"We have organized ourselves late, but we are here to show that there is a majority of Catalans that are no longer silent and that no longer want to be silenced," said Alex Ramos, head of Catalan Civil Society, a pro-union grassroots group.

The organizers said more than 1 million people turned out but police put the figure at 300,000.

Many who oppose independence fear the political turmoil in Catalonia could have a severe economic impact, both in the region and on Spain itself.

Some 1,700 companies have already relocated their headquarters to other parts of Spain in recent weeks amid the uncertainty.

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