The mystery of where former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were buried moved closer to resolution Wednesday after forensic scientists dug up their official graves in a hunt for DNA.
Ceausescu ruled Romania for 25 years with an iron fist before being ousted and executed during the 1989 anti-communist revolt in which more than 1,000 people were killed.
Many Romanians have doubted for years that the Ceausescus were really buried in the Ghencea military cemetery in west Bucharest. Still, they were shocked by the unannounced early-morning exhumation, part of a five-year lawsuit.
"I never thought this would happen," said Ioan Mirichi, 81, a former engineer visiting a family grave early Wednesday. "I didn't believe the rumors he wasn't buried here ... but I suppose the family must decide."
Conspiracy theories have ranged from the graves being empty to the Ceausescus' bodies being spirited off by supporters and replaced in their coffins by anonymous victims of Europe's bloodiest anti-communist revolt.
By the end of the day, one theory had been ruled out.
"There weren't empty graves, there were bodies," Valentin Ceausescu, the couple's 62-year-old son, told The Associated Press. He declined to participate in the exhumation.
"I don't know what the graves look like because I have never been there," he said. "We are not looking for revenge. We just want to find out the truth."
As news of the exhumation broke, officials rapidly closed the cemetery. Journalists were barred from the exhumation but an Associated Press reporter was the only one to enter the cemetery while the operation was taking place. A few elderly people already in the sprawling cemetery were kept away from the exhumations by guards.
A team of pathologists and cemetery officials hoisted the wooden caskets of Ceausescu and his wife out of their graves, took DNA samples from the corpses, then reburied the coffins. The process took over two hours.
The AP reporter saw a dirty cloth being removed from Ceausescu's alleged remains and what looked like a thick gray fur hat at one end of the coffin.
Mircea Oprean, the couple's son-in-law who witnessed the exhumation, said a belt and hat worn by Ceausescu meant it was "likely" the couple were buried in those graves. Ceausescu's alleged remains were better preserved than those of his wife, he commented.
Cemetery worker Cornel Muntean, who stood just yards from the exhumation, told the AP that Ceausescu was dressed in a thick gray overcoat.
Officials say it will take up to six months to scientifically determine the true identity of the remains.
Romanians rose up in 1989 as other Communist regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe, a people angry and exhausted by years of draconian rationing as Ceausescu tried to pay off the country's foreign debt. Meat, cooking oil and butter had been severely limited and blackouts were common.
Ceausescu was also known for the ruthless way in which he stifled dissent. His Securitate secret police were believed to have 700,000 informers in the Balkan nation of 22 million.
The dictator was toppled Dec. 22, 1989, after trying to flee Bucharest by helicopter but seeing his pilot switch sides. After a summary trial, Ceausescu and his wife were executed by a firing squad three days later.
Many questions still remain about the 1989 revolt and there have been few convictions for the deaths and injuries of thousands during it. Lower-level communist officials seized power then and have retained it, so there has been little real appetite to uncover the truth.
Valentin Ceausescu insisted he was not interested in unraveling the secrets of the revolution but only in determining if his parents' bodies were indeed buried there, so he could do a private burial in adjoining graves.
His sister and Oprean's wife, Zoia Ceausescu, had sued the defense ministry in 2005, saying she had doubts that her parents were in the cemetery. She died of cancer in 2006 and Valentin took up the case. The couple's other son Nicu died of cirrhosis in 1996 and is buried in the same Ghencea cemetery.
One woman at the cemetery Wednesday said her family had suffered dearly under Ceausescu's rule.
"My in-laws were thrown out of their homes like dogs and their properties were sold. My husband was a political prisoner," said Aurelia Fuica, tending marigolds and tugging weeds at the family grave yards (meters) from where the exhumations were taking place.
But she had no disagreement with Wednesday's operation.
"There is a mystery that needs to be solved," she said.