NICOSIA — Thieves dug up the grave of Cyprus's former president Tassos Papadopoulos during the night and stole his corpse from inside the coffin in a crime that shocked the east Mediterranean island on Friday.
State television interrupted normal programming throughout the day to broadcast live reports and reaction to the desecration.
A member of Papadopoulos's personal guard found the grave open when he went to light a vigil candle at around 8 am (0600 GMT) as he does every morning, state radio reported.
Police cordoned off the area but the spoil heap from the nocturnal digging was clearly visible and earth had been sprayed all over the headstone.
Police said that the grave robbery was "deliberate and carefully planned" as the perpetrators had taken precautions to cover their tracks.
They said it would have taken three or even four people to remove the heavy stone grave slab, but added that they had no immediate idea of the motive.
Police issued a statement later on Friday saying that three people were being questioned in connection with the incident, but that no arrest has yet been made.
Papadopoulos made political enemies during his lifetime, but leaders from across the spectrum united in condemning the crime which came the day before a memorial service was due to be held to mark the first anniversary of his death.
The Papadopoulos family said that the service at St Nicholas church in Deftera would go ahead as planned.
"This unholy act by robbers has caused sadness and anger but it cannot wipe out or bury the legacy of Tassos Papadopoulos," a family statement said.
"Wherever his remains may be, his voice can still be heard during these difficult times for our national cause."
Papadopoulos was president from 2003 to 2008 and led Greek Cypriots in rejecting a UN plan to reunify the divided island in a 2004 referendum.
Turkish Cypriots backed the plan in a simultaneous vote, but the plan failed and a divided island joined the European Union the same year.
Papadopoulos was defeated in the February 2008 election by current President Demetris Christofias of the communist AKEL party, who relaunched UN-brokered talks with the Turkish Cypriots in the face of persistent criticism from Papadoulos's centre-right DIKO party.
But both two parties were united on Friday in expressing their outrage.
DIKO leader Marios Garoyan condemned what he called a "heinous and terrible crime," while Christofias spoke out against a "despicable crime that causes shock and aversion."
"This truly is an act of barbarism that shames our culture," the president told reporters from Brussels where he is attending an EU summit.
"I call on the people to stay calm in the face of this provocation. I can't characterise this act any other way."
Christofias sent his "sympathy and support" to the Papadopoulos family and instructed the police to "exhaust all leads to solve this case."
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou told reporters in Brussels he was "shocked," adding: "It is an unacceptable, sacrilegious act contrary to all Greek tradition."
The leader of the island's powerful Orthodox Church, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, called it an "act of vandalism against a great leader."
Outside the police cordon at the cemetery in Deftera, shocked onlookers, some in tears, gathered in small huddles in driving winter rain.
A lifelong heavy smoker, Papadopoulos died of lung cancer at the age of 74.
Before being elected president, he held cabinet posts for 12 years as minister of interior, finance, labour, health and agriculture, and also served as interlocutor in bicommunal talks with the Turkish Cypriots in 1976.
In his mid-20s, he became the island's youngest minister, under the wing of his mentor Archbishop Makarios, who was president from independence in 1960 until his death in 1977.
As a young man, Papadopoulos was a key member of the political wing of the EOKA guerrilla group which fought to end British colonial rule when the dream of union with Greece was thwarted.
He voted against the Zurich-London agreement which paved the way for independence, but nevertheless served as one of four representatives of the Greek Cypriot side who drafted the island's post-independence constitution.
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