By Jon Nazca and Jordi Rubio
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of demonstrators waving Catalan flags and chanting "Independence!" and "Freedom for political prisoners!" poured into Barcelona on Friday, the fifth day of protests against the jailing of separatist leaders.
Many of the marchers began their journeys to the city on Wednesday from municipalities across the northeastern Spanish region, after the Supreme Court sentenced nine separatists to up to 13 years in jail over a failed bid to break away from Spain in 2017.
The sentences set off the worst sustained street violence Spain has seen in decades, and Friday's protests, that also include workers on strike, will be closely watched by authorities in Madrid.
"Throughout this week, as you well know, there have been violent incidents in Catalonia. They have been organized ... by groups who are a minority but are very organized," Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told a news conference. "Their actions, as we have already said, will also not go unpunished."
Friday's marches have so far been peaceful, ranging from families pushing prams to cyclists wheeling their bicycles and people draped in the Catalan independence flag, who took over a highway lane and other major roads as they walked towards the Catalan capital. Some in Barcelona stood by the side of the roads, applauding as the walkers arrived.
Protesters walking on a highway towards Barcelona carried a giant banner reading, in English: "Free Catalan Prisoners Now."
Several main streets in Barcelona were closed to traffic in anticipation of the marches. Regional trains and the city's metro were running on a reduced timetable after pro-independence unions called a strike.
Barcelona's main landmark, the multi-spired Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi, was shut down due to the protests, an official told Reuters.
The Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) said in a statement on that Barcelona's Oct. 26 home match against Real Madrid, one of the biggest rivalries in the sport, had been postponed due to security concerns.
Barcelona's El Prat airport canceled 57 flights on Friday, airport operator Aena said.
Barcelona town hall said 700 garbage containers were set ablaze since protests began on Monday and estimated that the city had suffered damage totaling more than 1.5 million euros ($1.67 million).
Thursday began with largely peaceful protests as young people draped in Catalan flags tossed balls and skipped rope. The mood shifted later in the night, with protesters setting fire to cafe chairs lining the fashionable Rambla de Catalunya street in the heart of Barcelona's tourist district.
An official from Barcelona town hall said around 10 trees were set on fire on Thursday.
Regional police said 16 people were arrested across Catalonia on Thursday, while health officials said medical aid was provided to 42 people.
Carmaker Seat, a unit of Volkswagen AG (DE:VOWG_p), halted production at its plant in Martorell, near Barcelona, from Thursday afternoon until Saturday, over concerns that the marches would disrupt traffic, a company spokeswoman said.
Barcelona's wholesale market, MercaBarna, said visits to its fish sellers were down 85% on Friday, while flower sellers at the market saw 90% fewer customers.
Pro-independence leaders went ahead with a 2017 referendum on independence, despite it being deemed illegal by Spanish courts, followed by a declaration that the region was breaking away from Spain. Madrid responded by seizing control of the Catalan administration and putting the ringleaders on trial.
Catalonia's former leader Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the failed independence bid, on Friday told reporters that Belgian authorities had allowed him to remain free without bail after Spain's Supreme Court targeted him with a European arrest warrant.
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