Spanish prosecutors demanded Monday that Catalonia's dismissed leaders be charged with rebellion after its parliament declared independence, as Madrid moved to take control of the region.
Axed regional president Carles Puigdemont, who called a banned independence referendum on October 1 that triggered the country's worst crisis in decades, was said to be in Brussels, although the motive for the trip was not known.
Upping the ante in the standoff, Spain's chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges including rebellion and sedition against the Catalan leaders who were sacked by the central government on Friday.
Jose Manuel Maza said they had "caused an institutional crisis that led to the unilateral declaration of independence carried out on October 27 with total contempt for our constitution".
Rebellion is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. A court now has to decide whether to bring charges.
Madrid took control of the wealthy semi-autonomous region after Friday's independence declaration by Catalan lawmakers, and called for a snap election on December 21 to replace the parliament in a drastic bid to stop the secessionist drive.
'Let the people express themselves'
The Spanish Senate gave Madrid the power to impose direct rule under Article 155 of the constitution, the first time the so-called "nuclear option" has been applied.
A member of Puigdemont's party PDeCAT, which together with other separatist parties has a narrow majority with 72 seats in the 135-member Catalan parliament, said it would take part in the December poll, against expectations it was likely to stage a boycott.
"We will go with conviction and with a commitment to letting the Catalan people express themselves," Marta Pascal told reporters.
Puigdemont himself had appeared on appeared on television on Saturday urging "democratic opposition" to the central government's move to take back power in the northeastern region.
But on Monday -- the first work day since Madrid imposed direct rule -- there was no sign of him in Barcelona and a Spanish government source told AFP he was in Brussels.
Belgium's immigration minister suggested on Saturday that Puigdemont could receive asylum there on the grounds he might not get a fair trial in Spain.
But Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel later insisted that was "not on the agenda".
PDeCAT member Pascal cryptically told media Monday: "We had presidents in this country who were not able to be here during Franco's time and they were still the president of the Catalan government."
She was referring to Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship, during which Catalonia's leader Josep Tarradellas lived in exile in Paris.
Clear your desks
Puigdemont maintains that the result of the independence referendum -- which was outlawed by Spain's Constitutional Court -- gave the region a mandate to declare it was breaking away from Spain.
Catalan police, now under orders from Madrid, have been told they can allow the dismissed leaders to enter the government headquarters in Barcelona, but only to clear their desks.
One member of the dismissed government, Josep Rull, tweeted a photo of himself "at the office" doing his job as a regional minister. He left again shortly afterwards to attend a party meeting.
The international community including the European Union, struggling with Brexit and other challenges, has largely spurned the independence declaration and has united behind Madrid.
Spain's Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis told Britain's Sky News on Sunday it was "hard to see" how Puigdemont and the others could go on in government, saying that "reality is sinking in".
Sergi Sabria, a spokesman for the separatist ERC party, appeared to agree on Monday, saying: "For now our republic is not fully able to impose itself the way that we would like."
But Sabria said that they would not give up, and a separatist source described the situation as the "beginning of a psychological war" with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government.
With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia accounts for a fifth of the eurozone country's economy and had a high degree of autonomy over key sectors such as education, healthcare and the police.
After Friday's declaration of independence, Catalan lawmakers hugged and sang the Catalan anthem. The session was beamed onto giant screens outside and a crowd of 15,000 cheered every "yes" vote.
But on Sunday it was the turn of supporters of a united Spain, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets of the Catalan capital Barcelona, waving Spanish and European flags and chanting "Viva Espana".
Municipal police said the crowd numbered about 300,000. Organisers said 1.3 million turned out and the central government's representative in Catalonia put the figure at one million.