NICOSIA, Cyprus - Grave robbers stole the corpse of former hard-line Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos, digging up his coffin during a thunderstorm just before the first anniversary of his death, police said yesterday.

The body-snatching has horrified people in Cyprus and has come as the island's Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are locked in complex reunification talks that have made limited progress.

Police said the tomb raiders struck late Thursday or early yesterday. There was no indication of a motive.

Police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos said that three people were initially detained for questioning but released without charge. He gave no more details.

President Demetris Christofias, who defeated Papadopoulos in March 2008 elections, urged Cypriots "to remain calm in the face of this provocative act."

"This is an unacceptable, unholy, unethical, and condemnable act that damages our tradition, our culture, and our respect toward the dead," Christofias said.

Papadopoulos is seen by some nationalist Greek Cypriots as a symbol of resistance against peace deals they believe have been weighted against them.

"What happened is macabre and utterly condemnable," said Andros Kyprianou, the head of Cyprus' ruling AKEL party. "I am honestly still trying to comprehend what kind of warped minds could even think of doing such a thing, let alone actually carry it out." He urged that those responsible be "caught and made an example of."

Mounds of fresh earth were piled by the fenced-off grave site yesterday at the Deftera Village Cemetery as about 80 police and two pathologists combed the area for clues.

The robbers had removed a heavy marble plaque from on top of the grave, police said, digging down to the coffin and taking the body of Papadopoulos, who died of lung cancer Dec. 12, 2008, at 74.

A light-gray substance was sprayed across the tombstone in a southwestern suburb of the capital, Nicosia, obscuring Papadopoulos' name and date of birth but leaving the tombstone otherwise unharmed. Local media said the substance appeared to be lime, possibly used to erase the robbers' shoe prints.

The violated grave was discovered by one of Papadopoulos' former security guards when he went to make arrangements yesterday morning for a ceremony marking the anniversary of the former president's death, police said.

Papadopoulos served as president from 2003-08, ushering the ethnically divided island into the European Union in 2004. He was a central figure of Cypriot politics for decades, with a career spanning most of the island's turbulent history since it gained independence from Britain in 1960.

At 26, he served as the youngest cabinet minister in the island's first postindependence government.