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MADRID (AP) — An independence vote set for November in Spain's powerful Catalonia region was halted Monday by the nation's constitutional court after the central government mounted a legal case saying the planned referendum would be illegal.
The court's unanimous decision to hear the government's case automatically suspended the Nov. 9 vote from going forward until the court hears arguments and makes a decision, a court statement said. That process could take months or years.
Spain's central government contends that the vote approved Saturday by Catalan regional leader Artur Mas is unconstitutional.
The court acted hours after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the referendum decree represents "a grave attack on the rights of all Spaniards."
Under Spain's 1979 Constitution, Rajoy said, all Spaniards must vote on issues of sovereignty — not just the 5 million Catalans who would be eligible to vote under Mas' planned vote.
Rajoy said after holding an emergency cabinet meeting that Spain's Constitution "was based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish state" and that it could be amended in the future but the government must defend it.
Unhappy at Spain's refusal to give it more autonomy and fiscal powers, Catalan politicians have been pushing for the referendum for months. The effort is Europe's latest secession attempt following Scotland's recent independence vote that resulted in a No vote and kept it part of Britain.
Polls suggest most Catalans favor holding the vote but are roughly evenly split on independence.
Mas has insisted that the vote will happen but has also said Catalonia will not break any laws. The region's government, based in Barcelona, has prepared ballot boxes and started publicity campaigns to inform voters about the referendum.
Rajoy said it was not too late for the Catalan regional government to change course and call off the vote, saying he was willing discuss Catalonia's complaints with the region's leaders.
Associated Press writer Jorge Sainz contributed from Madrid.