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Matadors kill last bulls prior to ban on fights

Matadors drove the killing sword into bulls for the last time Sunday in Spain's powerful northeastern region of Catalonia in an emotive farewell fight before a polemical regional ban on the country's emblematic tradition takes effect.

Three of Spain's top bullfighters, including No. 1 Jose Tomas, starred in the sold-out show at Barcelona's 20,000-seat Monumental ring. Catalan bullfighter Serafin Marin closed the fight killing the last of six bulls to great applause.

Many fans then invaded the ring to grab handfuls of sand to keep as souvenirs.

The bullfighters were later carried shoulder high from the ring into the streets outside the bullring while the crowd chanted slogans in favor of freedom and against the prohibition. A brief bout of scuffling broke out as fans confronted about 20 animal welfare activists, but there were no reports of injuries or arrests.

The fight was also preceded by moments of tension as pro- and anti-bullfighting activists exchanged insults.

Catalonia's Parliament banned bullfighting in July 2010 following a signature-collection campaign by animal rights activists. The ban does not take effect until Jan. 1, but Sunday's fight was the last scheduled this season.

Critics say the prohibition is less about animal welfare and more a snub to Spain by independence-minded Catalans.

Bullfighting's popularity in Catalonia has plunged in recent decades and the Monumental was its last functioning ring.

Hours before the fight, a small group of anti-bullfight activists gathered outside the arena, celebrating with sparkling wine.

"Obviously a lot of political parties have tried to politicize this, but we mustn't forget that this popular proposal sprouted from a pure pro-animal rights standpoint aimed at eradicating animal cruelty," campaigner Soraya Gaston said.

The prohibition caused a furor and triggered a nationwide debate over the centuries-old spectacle that inspired such artists and writers as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.

"Banning bullfighting in Catalonia is nothing more than an attack on liberty," said Carlos Nunez, president of Spain's Mesa del Toro pro-bullfighting umbrella group. "It's the fruit of policies in Catalonia against bullfighting and all that is seen to represent Spain."

Catalonia is the second of Spain's 17 regions to ban bullfighting. The Canary Islands outlawed the practice in 1991 although it had never been a popular tradition there.