Catalan separatist Puigdemont to return to Belgium Saturday

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont said Wednesday he will return to Belgium this weekend to resume efforts to drum up European support for Catalan self-determination after Spain's bid to extradite him collapsed.

Puigdemont has been in Germany since March, when he was arrested on a Spanish warrant as he tried to return from Finland to his home in Belgium. The warrant was withdrawn last week, and Puigdemont told reporters in Berlin that he will return to Belgium on Saturday.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium last year after his regional government held an unauthorized referendum on independence from Spain.

Spanish authorities took over the Catalan government for several months after a subsequent declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament received no international recognition.

Puigdemont said he will pick up where he left off in March, continuing his work to fulfill "the people's mandate" and support fellow separatists who are imprisoned in Spain.

Earlier this month, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Catalan President Quim Torra — a fervent nationalist who is Puigdemont's hand-picked successor — agreed to open talks over Catalonia's future.

Sanchez took office last month after securing a narrow parliamentary majority, with support from Catalan separatists and others, to oust predecessor Mariano Rajoy — a hardliner on Catalonia.

"Clearly the change of Spanish government has meant a change of style, climate and language," Puigdemont said.

"But it is time for facts and not gestures," he added. "We have shown that we are prepared ... for dialogue, but we have to address the essential part of this dialogue: the relationship between Catalonia and Spain."

Puigdemont insisted that the matter "is no longer a Spanish domestic affair." He acknowledged that Catalan separatists have no support from European governments, but insisted that "we have plenty of support from European citizens."

Spain had sought Puigdemont's extradition on rebellion charges for promoting independence. But a German court ruled he could only be sent back to face a lesser charge of embezzlement connected to the alleged misuse of public funds for holding the outlawed independence referendum. A Spanish judge then withdrew his European arrest warrant.

An earlier Spanish attempt to extradite Puigdemont from Belgium failed.