By Naomi O'Leary

ROME (Reuters) - The family of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke demanded the return of his body on Thursday after his funeral was disrupted by protesters and his coffin taken away by Italian authorities.

Priebke died last week, aged 100, in Rome, where he spent the end of his life under house arrest for his role in the killing of 335 civilians in 1944, one of Italy's worst wartime massacres. He never apologised for his crimes.

Authorities moved his coffin to a military airport late on Tuesday after clashes between neo-Nazis and residents of Albano Laziale, where the funeral was to be held. Residents objected to the ceremony being held in the town, which is 20 km (12 miles) from the caves on the outskirts of Rome where the massacre took place.

"There was an abduction of the body by about thirty people, police or intelligence services, and they beat four people who were holding vigil," lawyer Paolo Giachini told Italian media.

"Tell us where the body of Erich Priebke is. His children have asked me to get it back."

Giachini said Priebke's family would seek redress after his body was taken and for "acts of violence" against those keeping vigil at the Italian headquarters of the renegade Catholic Society of Saint Pius X, which had offered to hold the funeral.

Giachini said he did not know if Priebke's body was still at the Pratica di Mare airport. A spokesman for the Rome police had no immediate comment.

Argentina, to where Priebke escaped after the war, refused to allow his body to return to be buried next to his wife. His hometown in Germany has also resisted providing a grave, fearing it could become a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site, and there is widespread opposition to his burial in Italy.

The German embassy in Rome said they had been in contact with Giachini, but did not give any details.

Giachini's office on Thursday released a video statement by Priebke taken before his death, in which he defended his role in the 1944 massacre.

"It was a terrible thing for us to have to do this," Priebke said, interviewed in Italian wearing a white shirt and black waistcoat against a backdrop of bookshelves. "It was not possible... this was an order from Hitler."

(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

 

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