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Spain's caretaker government says it will mount a legal challenge to halt the creation of a foreign affairs ministry by the separatist-dominated regional government of Catalonia

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MADRID — Spain's caretaker government said Friday it will mount a legal challenge to halt the creation of a foreign affairs ministry by the separatist-dominated regional government of Catalonia.

Government lawyers will ask the nation's Constitutional Court to order the suspension of the ministry, which is seeking support abroad for Catalonia's independence from Spain, Justice Minister Rafael Catala told reporters.

Catala says Spanish foreign policy can only be set by the central government in Madrid.

Catalonia's regional government last month approved its foreign affairs ministry and named prominent separatist politician Raul Romeva to head it.

The regional parliament with a separatist majority has mounted an 18-month drive to transform Catalonia, in Spain's northeast, into a new Mediterranean nation by 2017.

The central government in Madrid says the effort is unconstitutional and will be stopped.

Catalan government spokeswoman Neus Monte defended the regional foreign ministry's "complete legality," suggesting Spain's caretaker government is acting in desperation to divert attention from the failure of acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to form a new government following inconclusive December elections.

"This shows us the death throes of a government in a freefall and at its lowest point," Monte told reporters.

Rajoy's party won the most votes but fell far short of the majority it enjoyed from 2011-2015. Rajoy then failed to win support from other parties for a coalition or minority government, prompting King Felipe VI this week to ask Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez to try to form a government.

Sanchez' party was the No. 2 vote-getter on Dec. 20 and is negotiating with two new upstart parties — the far-left Podemos led by college professor Pablo Iglesias and the business-friendly Ciudadanos headed by lawyer Albert Rivera.

Podemos came in third and Ciudadanos got fourth place, winning big support from voters angry about high unemployment, austerity cutbacks and official corruption.

The negotiations are complicated by Podemos' pledge to allow Catalans to hold an independence referendum opposed by the Socialists and Ciudadanos.

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