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Belgium to treat Catalan ex-leader 'like any other European'

[BRUSSELS] Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Tuesday that deposed Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont would be "treated like any other European citizen" after he said he planned to stay in Brussels.

Puigdemont, sacked by the Spanish government on Friday after Catalonia's parliament declared independence, told a packed news conference in Brussels he would not seek asylum in Belgium but would stay put "for safety purposes and freedom".

His presence will cause headaches for Mr Michel, who governs in coalition with Flemish separatists sympathetic to the Catalan cause, and the Belgian leader swiftly told him not to expect special treatment.

"According to his own words, Mr Puigdemont has come to Brussels because it is the capital of Europe. Here he will be treated like any other European citizen," Mr Michel said in a statement, stressing that his government had not invited the Catalan leader.

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"Mr Puigdemont has the same rights and responsibilities as any European citizen - no more, no less." Michel said he was in regular contact with Madrid during the crisis and repeated his call for "political dialogue in Spain to resolve the crisis within the framework of the national and international order".

The Belgian leader was at pains to stress that his government had "not undertaken any step to encourage Mr Puigdemont's arrival on Belgian soil".

"Mr Puigdemont is not in Belgium at the invitation or on the initiative of the Belgian government," Mr Michel said.

"Freedom of movement within the Schengen zone allows him to be in Belgium without any other formalities." The EU and its member states have been resolute in their support for Madrid during the Catalan independence crisis, triggered by Puigdemont pushing through an October 1 referendum in defiance of court orders against it.

But on Saturday Michel's immigration minister Theo Francken, from the Flemish separatist N-VA party, said Belgium could offer asylum to Puigdemont, who is facing possible criminal charges in Spain for rebellion.

After he was dismissed by Madrid, Puigdemont reportedly drove hundreds of kilometres to Marseille in France before flying to Belgium, where he sought advice from a lawyer who has worked on asylum cases involving Spaniards from the once-restive Basque Country.