Spain's Catalonia region has launched the country's first public DNA profiling project in a bid to identify some of the 114,000 people who disappeared during the nation's civil war and subsequent dictatorship.

The issue is hugely sensitive in Spain, where rights abuses during the 1936-1939 conflict and the ensuing 36-year rule of dictator Francisco Franco remain uninvestigated for fear of reviving divisions.

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Raul Romeva, who handles transparency matters in Catalonia's regional government, described the initiative as "a decisive step towards restoring" historical memory.

"It is a democratic duty that was long pending," he told AFP news agency on Wednesday.

"This should have started 40 years ago," added Romeva, referring to Franco's death in 1975 and the subsequent transition to democracy.   

Members of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory take part in a grave exhumation in Guadalajara's cemetery in January [Juan Medina/Reuters]

Under the programme, scientists will create a database for the DNA profiles of those related to people who disappeared.

For this, they will collect samples from remains found in mass graves, and try and find matches with the help of the Barcelona-based Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.

A similar project has already been set up in Barcelona on a smaller-scale, but it is privately funded by two descendants of people who disappeared.

In the space of five years, they have collected 125 genetic samples from relatives, but have not been able to cross-check the data with any remains as they do not have access to mass graves.

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Relatives of those who were killed or disappeared during the time in question have long asked the government to start exhuming and recovering victims' remains.

In 2007, under growing pressure, the then Socialist government passed a law calling for public funds to be provided to help cover the costs of exhuming remains, and the UN later urged Spain to do more.

However, little has been done since then, and Spain's acting conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has even boasted of not having spent one euro to put the law into effect.

Source: AFP