Ex-Catalan leader Puigdemont abandons bid to reclaim power

Puigdemont made the announcement via social media from self-exile in Belgium

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont will step aside from his candidacy for president of the Spanish northeastern region later on Thursday in order to allow another candidate to take his place, El Nacional newspaper said on Thursday, citing sources from Puigdemont's party Junts per Catalunya.

"I will not put myself forward as candidate to be appointed regional president", said Puigdemont in a statement through his social media accounts.

Announcing he was provisionally withdrawing his candidacy, he said that decision "is founded in one reason only - under current conditions it's the way to get a new government underway".

Rajoy said on Thursday that a Catalan leader "must be chosen now who is in Spain... and who has no problems with the law".

Madrid imposed direct rule on Catalonia after the independence declaration, stripping the autonomous region of many of its administrative powers.

At the end of January, the Catalan parliament's speaker - also a separatist - postponed a key vote to reappoint him as president.

Puigdemont has lived in self-imposed exile in Belgium since October past year and has fought a war or words with Madrid from afar.

If Puigdemont returns to Spain, he will no doubt be arrested, making his return to the presidency problematic.

The Supreme Court is looking into whether two dozen Catalan separatists, including Mr Sanchez, should be charged for rebellion and sedition, which can be punished with decades in prison.

Mr Puigdemont said his party would propose a pro-secession campaigner, Jordi Sanchez - now in remand in a Madrid prison on charges of sedition - as an alternative candidate.

Catalonia's future has been deadlocked since defiant secessionists gained a slim majority in the Catalan parliament in December's regional election.

Puigdemont had earlier campaigned in December 2017 to be reinstated as a regional leader and was supported by various independent political groups, which demanded Puigdemont to govern remotely.

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