BARCELONA (Reuters) - A pardon for jailed Catalan separatist leaders would be a welcome "first step", but the path to resolving the region's political conflict with Madrid lies through talks on allowing a vote on independence, the head of the regional government said.
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has indicated in recent weeks he is preparing to pardon 12 Catalan separatists sentenced over their role in a failed independence bid in 2017, nine of whom are in jail.
In his first interview with foreign media since taking office last month, regional leader Pere Aragones, 38, told Reuters on Monday the potential pardons would not resolve the underlying political problem, and demanded an amnesty for any offence for all those involved in the 2017 bid.
Separatist parties have estimated that would benefit around 3,000 people.
The pardons "should be a first step in a negotiation stage, of recognising the national conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish state", the left-wing separatist said, and to eventually allowing "Catalan citizens to decide".
Catalonia's unauthorised referendum in 2017 and a subsequent short-lived declaration of independence triggered Spain's biggest political crisis in decades.
Nine Catalan leaders were convicted of sedition in October 2019 and sentenced to between nine and 13 years in jail. Three more were found guilty of disobedience but not given jail terms.
Aragones said his ERC party had not asked the Spanish government for pardons and did not expect to give anything in return.
Sanchez and Aragones are scheduled to meet later this month in Madrid, aiming to resume dialogue between the central and regional governments on Catalonia's future, although Madrid insists Spain's unity has to be preserved.
Aragones said a referendum and an amnesty would be his main requests when meeting Sanchez, adding that he was "absolutely convinced" that Catalonia would eventually become a separate country and hoped that when his four-year term ended the region would have the capacity to vote on independence.
He said his commitment was to hold a referendum authorised by Madrid, ruling out another unilateral vote.
Just under half of people living in Catalonia want independence, according to opinion polls.
In a potential sign of easing of strained relations with Madrid, Aragones did not rule out attending a dinner on Wednesday in Barcelona chaired by King Felipe, Spain's head of state. Separatist officials have boycotted most of the king's events in protest over his position after the 2017 referendum.
(Reporting by Joan Faus; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Alex Richardson)