Page last updated at 19:33 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

Outrage in Cyprus at Tassos Papadopoulos tomb raiders

Investigators examine the desecrated grave, 11 December 2009
Investigators used a ladder to study the desecrated grave

Politicians in the Republic of Cyprus have voiced outrage after thieves stole the corpse of former President Tassos Papadopoulos from his grave.

His ex-rival and successor as president, Demetris Christofias, condemned the "unholy" theft and urged the public to remain calm.

The remains were stolen during a thunderstorm, shortly before the first anniversary of the ex-leader's death.

As investigators sought a motive for the act, three people were questioned.

The desecration is bound to stir up passions over peace efforts aimed at reuniting the Turkish and Greek parts of the island, the BBC's Malcolm Brabant reports from Greece's capital, Athens.

Papadopoulos made many enemies during a long and eventful political career, after fighting British colonial rule in a guerrilla group.

The pinnacle of his career came in 2004, when he made an emotional denunciation of a UN plan to reunite the island, our correspondent says.

His tearful appeal convinced 76% of Greek Cypriots to reject the proposal in a referendum, which Turkish Cypriots overwhelmingly approved.

He died on 12 December last year of lung cancer at the age of 74, and a memorial service is due to be held on Saturday.

'Warped minds'

Police in Nicosia said that three people were being questioned in relation to the theft but no arrests had been made.

Tassos Papadopoulos, file pic from 2007
Born in 1934
Trained as a barrister in London during the 1950s
Achieved prominence in the political wing of the right-wing paramilitary group EOKA
Became youngest government minister, aged 24, in 1959 after independence from British rule
Occupied several ministerial positions, before narrowly winning the presidential election in 2003
Lost a bid for a second term as president in February 2008, before dying in December 2008

There has been no sign of the corpse, which was stolen either late on Thursday or early on Friday, and there were no immediate claims of responsibility.

"This is an unacceptable, unholy, unethical and condemnable act that damages our tradition, our culture and our respect toward the dead," said President Christofias.

Andros Kyprianou, head of the ruling Akel party, described the theft as "macabre and utterly condemnable".

"I am honestly still trying to comprehend what kind of warped minds could even think of doing such a thing, let alone actually carry it out," he added.

State television interrupted normal programming throughout the day to broadcast live reports and reaction to the desecration, AFP news agency reports.

The theft was reported by a former bodyguard who visited the tomb and found piles of earth by the graveside and an empty coffin.

The inscription of the late president's name on a wall above the grave had been spattered with a white substance.

The thieves had to shift a marble slab weighing 250kg (40st) to dig up the grave and apparently used asbestos or gypsum to cover their tracks.

Police described the theft as "deliberate and carefully planned".

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