The remains of Spain’s General Francisco Franco were exhumed on Thursday and moved from a grand mausoleum to a private family vault.
A heavy granite slab was moved by a crane from the tomb where the fascist dictator was laid to rest in a ceremony attended by a select few people including 22 of his family members, Spain’s justice minister and a priest.
His coffin was carried out of the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen to a car by his grandsons, while relatives saluted it with a cry of “Viva Franco!”
The Valley of the Fallen is a huge monument built on Franco’s orders around 64 kilometres from Madrid which houses the remains of more than 30,000 fighters from both sides of the Spanish Civil War.
The 1936-1939 war, fought between Franco’s nationalist forces and the Republican government of the time, killed 500,000 people. Franco’s forces won the war and he ruled over Spain as dictator until 1975.
The Valley of the Fallen, which houses thousands of Franco’s victims in unmarked graves, was built by forced labour.
The decision to move Franco’s body has caused controversy in Spain, where his legacy sparks deep division.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose government had pledged to relocate the dictator, won backing to remove the remains from the mausoleum.
Mr Sánchez said last month that removing the remains was “a big victory for our democracy”.
“It was nonsense to have a monument to a dictatorship that did so much damage to our citizens for 40 years,” he said in an interview in New York.
The exhumation was contested by Franco’s family who lost a Supreme Court battle to keep his remains in the Valley of the Fallen.
Juan Chicharro, chairman of the National Francisco Franco Foundation, said Franco’s supporters would continue to fight to preserve his legacy.
“Mr Sanchez has brought back to life a division between Spaniards that didn’t exist,” he told state broadcaster TVE in an interview. “What we are seeing is nothing more than a partial victory — the war will continue.”
Critics of Mr Sánchez said the move was a political stunt ahead of Spain’s November 10 elections designed to draw attention away from tensions in Catalonia, which has seen violent demonstrations since the jailing of nine separatist leaders for their part in a failed independence bid.
Franco’s grandson, Francisco Franco y Martinez-Bordiu, said he was angry with the government’s decision.
"I feel a great deal of rage because [the government] has used something as cowardly as digging up a corpse as propaganda, and political publicity to win a handful of votes before an election," he told Reuters.
But for descendants of Franco’s victims, the move could not come soon enough.
Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz, 93, who was a prisoner of Franco's regime and was forced to help build the Valley of the Fallen, said the exhumation was “long overdue”.
"We've waited many decades for (him) to disappear from this monument, which ... was the shame of Spain. All the dictators of Franco's ilk have vanished from Europe -- Hitler, Mussolini -- and were not honoured with such tombs," he told Reuters.
The Spanish people appear to be divided over the decision. An El Mundo poll this month said 43 per cent supported the move, with 32.5 per cent against and the rest undecided.