MADRID (Reuters) - Cries of "long live Franco!" accompanied the laurel wreath-draped coffin of General Francisco Franco on Thursday as Spain removed the remains of its former dictator from the state mausoleum where he was buried in 1975.
Hailed by acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez as a step towards national reconciliation, the exhumation was the most significant move in years by Spanish authorities to lay the ghost of the general whose legacy still divides the country he ruled as an autocrat for nearly four decades.
Sanchez said the unearthing of the coffin and its reburial in a private grave - a transfer that Franco's family had sought to block through the courts - would strengthen Spain's democratic credentials.
"Modern Spain is the product of forgiveness, but it can't be the product of forgetfulness," Sanchez said in a televised address. "A public tribute to a dictator was more than an anachronism. It was an affront to our democracy."
His Socialist Party, which faces a national election next month, has long sought to strip the huge monument in the Valley of the Fallen of its status as a memorial to Franco.
It was built on the dictator's orders and contains the remains of combatants from both sides of the civil war he unleashed in 1936.
Around 500,000 people were killed in three years of conflict between Franco's nationalist rebels, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, and left-wing Republicans.
Tens of thousands more were killed or imprisoned in the ensuing dictatorship that lasted until his death decades later.
In Thursday's ceremony, rich with symbolism of a bygone age and witnessed only by relatives and a small group of officials, Franco's coffin was taken from its tomb as crowds of media and onlookers gathered outside.
Family members carried the coffin to a waiting hearse which transferred it to a helicopter for the short flight to the Mingorrubio cemetery north of Madrid.
There, to a backdrop of supporters chanting his name, Franco's remains were taken into the family vault for reburial next to his wife in a second private ceremony.
The exhumation is "intensely symbolic for Spain", said political scientist Pablo Simon, "because the (Franco) monument has always been connected to those who miss the old regime".
Seeking to play down its repercussions, the government had enforced a media blackout and forbidden Franco's family from draping his coffin with the Spanish flag.
But in a gesture of solidarity with his ancestor, his eldest grandson and namesake Francisco Franco carried a Franco-era nationalist flag into the valley mausoleum, Reuters TV footage showed.
Relatives then decorated the coffin with a victor's crown of laurel leaves, a woven cloth bearing the insignia of the family's ducal coat of arms and five roses representing the Falange party that formed the core of Franco's nationalist government.
The ceremony and its symbols highlighted how deeply the political and social divisions over his legacy still run.
Shortly after his death, in an effort to ease the transition to democracy, Spain passed a pact pardoning political crimes committed under Franco. It was not until 2007 that the then Socialist government promulgated a law seeking to recognise those who suffered under his dictatorship.
A poll in newspaper El Mundo this month showed 43% of Spaniards favoured the transfer of Franco's remains while 32.5% opposed it.
In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, the dictator's grandson accused the government of engineering the exhumation "as propaganda and political publicity to win a handful of votes before an election".
Albert Rivera, whose centre-right Ciudadanos party abstained in the parliamentary vote to ratify the coffin's transfer, said on Thursday that almost two-thirds of Spaniards had not lived or suffered under Franco.
"The bones of a dictator who died 44 years ago should not be a government's priority in my opinion. The only silver lining is that (acting Socialist Prime Minister) Pedro Sanchez will stop talking about Franco's bones," he said.
But the dictator's burial alongside his victims in the Valley of the Fallen had long raised critical questions among historians and campaigners, including 93-year-old Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz.
"It was time (to move him). It was overdue," said Sanchez-Albornoz, who as a prisoner of Franco's Fascist regime was forced to help build the Valley of the Fallen.
"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 said.
(Additional reporting by Emma Pinedo, Jose Elias Rodriguez Sonya Dowsett and Paola Luelmo; Writing by John Stonestreet; Editing by Catherine Evans and Sonya Dowsett)