Georgian authorities have removed a historic statue of Joseph Stalin in the former Soviet leader's hometown of Gori, officials have said.
Municipal workers and police worked from midnight to take down the six-metre-high bronze statue from the central square of the city, where it had stood since the 1950s.
A local official said they intended to place it in a museum dedicated to Stalin, while a monument dedicated to victims of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia would be placed on the now-empty pedestal.
Nika Rurua, the Georgian culture minister, said he believed the decision was "overdue".
"Stalin was a man who killed millions of innocent people, who killed the best representatives of not only Georgian society but the best people in many countries," he said.
'People will be angry'
Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-Western Georgian president, has repeatedly hinted that the statue would be removed, but the move is still likely to anger some residents who remain proud of Stalin.
"I think many people will be very angry"
"It was very unexpected," Lado Bichashvili, a journalist Trialeti, a local television company, told the Reuters news agency.
"I think many people will be very angry."
Local media said that police sealed off the area around the statue during the removal and barred journalists from filming the process.
The bronze figure was one of only a few monuments to Stalin still standing anywhere in the world.
"People from around the world used to visit Gori to see this statue and to pay their respects to Stalin," Nugzar Lamazov, who lives in a nearby village, said.
Stalin is widely reviled as he was responsible for millions of deaths in political purges, labour camps and forced agricultural collectivisation.
But some still see him as a hero who helped the Soviet Union defeat Nazi Germany and become an industrialised nation.
For many Georgians, including Saakashvili, the monument was a symbol of Moscow's lingering influence two decades after the small nation gained independence
in the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Gori, which lies 80km west of the capital, Tbilisi, was the hardest-hit Georgian city in the five-day war with Russia in August 2008.
Bombs hit the main square near the statue and buildings nearby.
|The statue has stood in Gori's central square since the 1950s [Reuters]
The city was occupied by Russian troops for weeks after the conflict, which erupted when Georgia sought to recapture the Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia, just north of the city.
After the conflict, some officials and prominent Georgians called for the monument's removal, saying its presence in Gori was immoral after the Russian bombardment and occupation.
The government will hold a competition for the design of the monument to the war victims, a culture ministry spokesperson told the Reuters news agency.
Russia recognised South Ossetia's independence after the war and has strengthened its grip on the rebel region.
Gori also hosts some smaller statues and busts of Stalin as well as the museum dedicated to the late leader, who was born on December 21, 1879.
Mainly elderly supporters traditionally gather outside the museum twice a year, on his birthday and the day of his death.
Stalin, whose real name was Dzhugashvili, ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death.