Catalonia is prepared to enter into a dialogue on independence from Spain "without preconditions," Catalan President Carles Puigdemont told CNN on Wednesday, as the Madrid government took the first steps to imposing direct rule on the region.
Speaking a day after he appeared to delay a formal declaration of independence, Puigdemont struck a conciliatory tone, saying he favored mediation to resolve the crisis.
But Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gave Puigdemont five days to clarify whether he had made a declaration of independence or not, after which Madrid could take over the Catalan government.
On Tuesday Puigdemont made an ambiguous address to the Catalan parliament, saying that Catalonia had won the right to declare a republic following a disputed October 1 referendum. But he said the declaration would be suspended, in order to allow for dialogue.
Puigdemont then led a group of Catalan lawmakers in signing what appeared to be a symbolic declaration of independence. The legal status of the document was unclear.
Rajoy said after a meeting of his cabinet Wednesday that he had formally asked the Catalan government to clarify its actions before deciding how to proceed.
In a letter to Puigdemont released later, Rajoy said the Catalan leader had until 10 a.m. local time Monday to confirm whether the Catalan parliament had declared independence.
Rajoy warned in the letter that if the answer was yes, and Puigdemont refused to withdraw the declaration by the following Thursday, he could impose direct rule under article 155 of the Spanish constitution.
"The council of ministers has agreed to require formally the government of Catalonia to confirm if they have declared the declaration of independence, in spite of the confusion generated by the suspension," Rajoy said after the Cabinet meeting.
"This requirement -- prior to any measures the government may adopt under article 155 of our constitution -- seeks to offer citizens the clarity and security that such an important issue requires."
He called on the Catalan authorities to "return to institutional normality and go back to legality." Rajoy has previously refused to hold talks unless Puigdemont drops his independence claim.
Puigdemont: Politics, not police
Rajoy's challenge will force Puigdemont to clarify what may have been an intentionally ambiguous statement.
Asked by CNN why he had not pushed for independence immediately on Tuesday, Puigdemont responded: "In the first place because of a sense of responsibility. I do not want to declare independence, I want to make it happen."
He said he felt obliged to open a window for dialogue in response to international demands -- adding that a formal offer of dialogue like the one he had made to Madrid "needs a response in days."
Puigdemont insisted the government in Madrid had no reason to apply article 155 of the constitution to Catalonia and that to do so would be a mistake.
He also rejected any suggestion that he should be arrested for his actions, saying he was not a criminal. "My arrest would be unjustified and a mistake; this is not the moment to send people with whom you have political discrepancies to prison."
Puigdemont said it was an important time for both sides to enter into dialogue.
"We are at a point where the most important thing that there is no previous condition to sit down and talk, to accept that we have to talk, we need to talk in the right conditions," he said. "Maybe, it could help (us) to talk if two people representing the Spanish government and two people representing the Catalan government just simply agree on one thing, for instance, naming a mediator."
Puigdemont blamed the current turmoil on the state's response. "Yesterday I tried to send a message of calmness and to remind people that we are facing a political problem that we need to solve with politics and not with police," he said.
Hundreds of people were injured in Catalonia on October 1 as Spanish national police sought to prevent the referendum going ahead. Catalan authorities said 90% of voters supported a split from Spain. But they conceded that the turnout was only 43%.
Rajoy: 'Worst moment in recent history'
Addressing the Spanish Parliament in Madrid later Wednesday, Rajoy reiterated that the ball is in Puigdemont's court and described the current crisis as "one of the worst moments in the recent history of democracy."
The Prime Minister said the tourism sector in Catalonia had already been badly hit by the unrest, with occupancy down 20% in "big hotels" and 40% in tourist apartments.
"There have been more warnings to international travelers after what happened recently than after the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in August," he said.
Rajoy also rejected the role of third-party mediators in the crisis, saying that while most have good intentions, "there is no possible mediation between democracy and illegality."
Spanish Socialist opposition leader Pedro Sanchez echoed Rajoy's call for clarity from the Catalan government, saying neither Catalans nor the rest of the nation should be left in a state of uncertainty.
Speaking at his party's headquarters, he said Rajoy had agreed to open a process of constitutional reform in Spain but that this was unconnected to events in Catalonia. "We consider that the best way to defend the constitution is to reform it," he said.
CNN's Nic Robertson reported from Barcelona and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN's Isa Soares, Claudia Rebaza, Vasco Cotovio and Milena Veselinovic contributed to this report.