By Yvonne Bell
MVEZO, South Africa (Reuters) - Workers armed with pick-axes and a court order broke into the compound of Nelson Mandela's grandson on Wednesday to exhume the remains of three of the anti-apartheid hero's children, a new twist in a row that has split South Africa's most famous family.
Within hours of a ruling against Mandla Mandela by the high court in Mthatha, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg, police and hearses arrived at Mandla's complex in the nearby village of Mvezo, where the three Mandela offspring are buried.
The grey palisade gates blocking the road were forced open in front of a scrum of photographers and cameramen.
The three bodies were initially laid to rest in the family cemetery in Qunu, the village where Mandela - now 94 years old and critically ill in hospital - spent most of his childhood.
But they were moved two years ago by Mandla to Mvezo, where he serves as the official head of the clan.
The spat over the site of the Mandela family graves has transfixed and appalled South Africa's 53 million people as they contemplate the reality that the father of the post-apartheid "Rainbow Nation" will not be with them forever.
In a court affidavit filed against Mandla last week, Mandela's eldest daughter, Makaziwe, argued for an urgent hearing, saying her father was in a "perilous" condition and breathing with the aid of life-support, local media said.
"The anticipation of his impending death is based on real and substantial grounds," the City Press newspaper quoted the court papers as saying.
Mandla has not made clear why he moved the remains the 20 km to Mvezo, where Mandela was born, but many South Africans believe it is part of a campaign to ensure the country's first black president is buried there.
Mandla has already built a visitor center at Mvezo and a memorial to his grandfather, one of the 20th century's most admired political figures, revered across racial and religious lines as a symbol of opposition to injustice and oppression.
Last week, a faction of the family led by Makaziwe sought a court order compelling the bodies to be returned to Qunu.
Local media reports have suggested the initial movement of the remains by Mandla may have been carried out without the required cultural customs being observed, and police have opened an investigation to determine whether it was done illegally.
Mandla, a 39-year-old Member of Parliament for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), was not present when a posse of police, workmen and undertakers entered the Mvezo complex to carry out the court order.
However, a statement released by his office said he would not stand in their way.
"Nkosi Zwelivelile has on numerous occasions indicated that he is not against the repatriation of the remains in question," the statement said, calling Mandla by his official clan title.
It also condemned "a lot of allegations and dirt thrown in his direction".
Makaziwe was present at Mvezo but did not talk to reporters, who were pushed back by police. After the court decision, her only words to reporters were: "This is a private family matter."
The three Mandela children buried in Mvezo are an infant girl who died in 1948, a boy, Thembi, who died in a car crash in 1969, and Makgatho, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 2005. In all, Mandela fathered six children from his three marriages.
(Reporting by Yvonne Bell; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)