Spain exhumed the embalmed body of Francisco Franco from a grandiose state mausoleum on Thursday, reburying it in more discreet grave in a country still conflicted over the dictator's decades-long regime.
The carefully-choreographed operation which began inside an imposing basilica in Valley of the Fallen and ended some four hours later at a state cemetery outside of Madrid, was hailed by the government as ending “an insult to Spanish democracy”.
“This decision puts an end to the moral outrage of the glorification of a dictator in a public space,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
“It takes us one step closer to reconciliation… and gives prestige to our democracy, not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of the world.”
The delicate procedure drew a line under a sombre drama which had threatened to open barely-healed wounds in a nation still divided over Franco's legacy 44 years after his death.
The coffin bearing the embalmed body of Spain's Francisco Franco was carried out of a grandiose basilica after being exhumed Thursday from the grave where it had lain since 1975, in images broadcast on live televsision.
The long-awaited exhumation process began at around 11:00 am (0900 GMT) with his coffin carried out of the imposing basilica at the Valley of the Fallen some two hours later.
The dictator's coffin was borne by eight family members and placed into a hearse to be transferred a few hundred metres to a waiting helicopter to carry it to a more discreet grave just north of Madrid.
Some 22 relatives of the late dictator were on hand to witness the opening of the grave near Madrid, which has been a draw for both tourists and right-wing sympathisers.
After removing the heavy flagstone on top of the grave, which reportedly weighs some 1,500 kilogrammes (1.5 tonnes), the dilapidated casket was then secured before being extracted, a government spokesman said.
Santiago Cantera (C), the prior of the Valle de los Caidos basilica greets Francisco Franco's relatives before the exhumation of the Spanish dictator at the Valle de los Caidos
A helicopter carried Franco's coffin from the Valley of the Fallen to El Pardo for reburial.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has made moving Franco's remains a priority since coming to power in June 2018, saying Spain should not “continue to glorify” a man who ruled with an iron fist after the bloody 1936-39 civil war
won by his Nationalist forces.
A group of pro-Franco demonstrators hold a banner reading “dictatorial state” during the exhumation
Chasing 'Franco's mummy' votes
The hearse drove the coffin several hundred metres to an open plaza where it was transferred to one of two waiting airforce helicopters for the brief flight to El Pardo, some 50 kilometres away.
There his body was reburied alongside that of his wife in Mingorrubio state cemetery.
Ahead of his arrival, around 200 supporters of the diminutive dictator rallied outside the cemetery, some holding Falange banners, others draped in older Franco-era Spanish flags, shouting “Long live Franco!”
“Franco will never die. For me, today is about loyalty. I had to come to thank him for everything he has done for us,” said Miguel Maria Martinez, a pensioner from the Basque Country.
Someone holds up a Falange flag with the portraits of late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and founder of the Fascist Falange Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, at the entrance of the Mingorrubio cemetery at El Pardo
Stickers supporting Francisco Franco are pictured during the exhumation of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco at the Valle de los Caidos
Initially scheduled for June 2018, the operation was delayed by a string of legal challenges filed by Franco's descendants.
Sanchez has described the operation as “a great victory” for Spanish democracy.
But coming just over a fortnight before a general election, his rivals have accused him of electioneering, with Pablo Iglesias of the radical leftwing Podemos saying he had unearthed “Franco's mummy” to win votes.
Spaniards are divided over the exhumation, with 43 percent in favour, 32.5 percent against and the rest undecided, according to an El Mundo poll published earlier this month.
An archive image of Gen Francisco Franco and King Juan Carlos before he came to the throne. Photo: AFP
Ordered by Franco in 1940 to celebrate his “glorious (Catholic) crusade” against the “godless” Republicans, construction of the Valley of the Fallen lasted for almost 20 years.
Partly built by the forced labour of political prisoners, the site is one of Europe's largest mass graves, housing the remains of over 30,000 dead from both sides of a civil war that was triggered by Franco's rebellion against an elected Republican government.
Most had fought for Franco but the monument also contains the bones of many Republican opponents who were moved there from cemeteries and mass graves across the country without their families being informed.
A 150-metre (500-feet) cross towers over the site which Franco dedicated to “all the fallen” of the conflict in what he called a gesture of reconciliation.
Since Franco was buried there after his death in 1975, flowers have been placed daily on his tomb.
A helicopter can be seen coming in to land at the Valley fo the Fallen. Photo: AFP
In 2017, the parliament approved a non-binding motion calling for Franco's remains to be removed from the Valley of the Fallen, but it was ignored by the former conservative government of Mariano Rajoy.
Conservatives repeatedly accuse the left of opening wounds from the past with a so-called historical memory law, approved by a previous Socialist government in 2007.
That law ordered the removal of all symbols of the Franco regime and called for the identification of those bodies dumped into mass graves during the civil war.
Rajoy, who governed from 2011 until 2018, proudly said his government never gave any money to apply this law.
Spanish dictator's great-grandson Prince Louis Alphonse of Bourbon, Duke of Anjou (C) arrives for the exhumation of the Spanish dictator at the Valle de los Caidos
Francis Franco, grandson of Spanish dictator Franco, arrives holding a Spanish pre-constitutional flag.
Meanwhile at the Mongorubio cemetery, pro-Franco crowds were also gathering to pay tribute to the late dictator when he reached his new final resting place.
Around 200 people, some wearing insignia of Spanish fascists and saluting to a chorus of 'Viva Espana' or singing 'Cara al Sol', the anthem of the Falange, gathered at the cemetery gates.
#DIRECTO Los partidarios de #Franco se hacen notar en #MIngorrubio. “Viva Franco” y cantos del “Cara al Sol” #exhumacionFranco #ExhumaciónFranco120 @telemadrid
Directo ▶https://t.co/HqE74E3RWs pic.twitter.com/kuDlzfKyvm
— 120 minutos (@120minutosTM) October 24, 2019