Is it really the body of tsar's heir?

RUSSIAN prosecutors have reopened an investigation into the deaths of the last tsar and his family nearly 90 years ago after claims that the remains of Alexei, the 13-year-old heir to the throne, may have been found.

The announcement of the reopened inquiry, while a routine matter, signalled that the government appeared to be taking the claims by archaeologist Sergei Pogorelov seriously.

Mr Pogorelov said bones found in a burned area of ground near Yekaterinburg belonged to a boy and a young woman, roughly the ages of Tsar Nicholas II's son, Alexei, and a daughter, Maria, whose remains also never have been found.

Yekaterinburg is the city in the Urals where the tsar, his wife and children were held prisoner and then shot in 1918.

If confirmed to be Alexei and Maria's remains, the find would solve a persistent mystery and fill in a missing chapter in the story of the royal Romanov family, victims of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ushered in more than 70 years of Communist rule.

Mr Pogorelov's claims come nearly a decade after remains identified as those of Nicholas, his wife and three of their daughters were reburied in a ceremony in the imperial-era Russian capital, St Petersburg.

The ceremony, however, was shadowed by statements of doubt - including from within the Russian Orthodox Church - about their authenticity.

The spot where the new remains were found appears to correspond to a site described in writing by Yakov Yurovsky, the leader of the family's killers, said Mr Pogorelov,

who works at a centre for the preservation of historical and cultural monuments in Yekaterinburg. He went on: "An anthropologist has determined that the bones belong to two young individuals - a young male he found was aged roughly 10-13 and a young woman about 18-23."

Nicholas abdicated in 1917 as revolutionary fervour swept Russia, and he and his family were detained. The next year, they were sent to Yekaterinburg, where a Bolshevik firing squad executed them on 17 July, 1918.

Historians say guards lined up and shot Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, their five children and four attendants in the basement of a nobleman's house. The bodies were loaded on to a truck and initially dumped in a mine shaft but were later moved, according to most accounts.

The Bolsheviks mutilated and hid the bodies because they did not want the remains - especially Alexei's - to become a shrine or rallying point for anti-Bolshevik forces. Parts of the bodies were exhumed in 1991 - the year the Soviet Union fell apart - and reburied in St Petersburg in 1998. Scientific tests indicated the bones of Anastasia, a daughter that some have said survived the shooting, were among the remains buried.

But two skeletons have never been found: those of Alexei and a daughter thought to be Maria.

The Russian church canonised Nicholas, Alexandra, Alexei and his four sisters as martyrs in 2000. But the church - citing the two missing corpses and questions over whether the bones were those of the royal family - chose to scale down its participation in the 1998 ceremony.

Yesterday, an official of the Russian Orthodox Church called for a thorough inquiry to determine the identity of the remains. "I would like to hope the examination will be more thorough and detailed than the examination of the so-called 'Yekaterinburg remains', which the Church did not acknowledge as the remains of members of the tsar's family," he said.

Historian Edvard Radzinsky, the author of a book about the last tsar, said that if the remains were confirmed as those of Alexei and a sister, it would prove the authenticity of the earlier find by providing "documentary affirmation of what is written in Yurovsky's notes".

A 1934 report based on Yurovsky's words indicated that the bodies of nine victims had been doused with sulphuric acid and buried along a road, while those of Alexei and a sister were burned and left in a pit nearby. Archaeologists found shards of a ceramic container of sulphuric acid as well as nails, metal strips from a wooden box, and bullets. They found the remains using metal detectors and metal rods as probes, not by digging.

Experts will be conducting molecular and other tests on the new remains, Nikolai Nevolin, a Yekaterinburg forensics scientist, said yesterday.

However, a representative of the Romanov family urged caution, given past controversies. "It is necessary to treat these findings very cautiously," Ivan Artseshchevsky said.

DECADES-LONG STORY OF THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO HOPED TO PERSUADE THE WORLD THEY WERE ROMANOVS

THE lack of physical remains of Tsar Nicholas and his family may have helped give rise to claims that some of them survived the massacre.

Tsarevich Alexei and his elder sister Anastasia were the most popular candidates.

In Bulgaria in 1953, Peter Zamiatkin, who was reportedly a member of the guard of the Russian imperial family, told a 16-year-old fellow hospital patient that he had taken Anastasia and Alexei to the village of his birth near Odessa at the tsar's request.

After the assassination of the rest of the royal family, Zamiatkin reportedly escaped with the children by ship, from Odessa

The alleged survivors were said to have lived out their lives under assumed names in the Bulgarian town of Gabarevo. The Bulgarian Anastasia claimant called herself Eleonora Albertovna Kruger and died in 1954.

Other Alexei claimants include Canadian Ernest Veerman, also known as Heino Temmet, who at the age of 68 called himself Alexei Temmet-Romanov, saying his deafness in one ear was the result of a gunshot fired at close range by the Romanovs' assassins.

CIA agent Michael Goleniewski was a Russian spy before defecting to the United States in 1961. His claims to be Alexei proved to be an embarrassment to the CIA, which terminated his employment in 1964.

A year previously, Goleniewski's meeting with the Anastasia claimant Eugenia Smith was covered by Life magazine. Each claimed to recognise their lost sibling.

Goleniewski spent the remainder of his life in Queens, New York, still claiming that he was Tsarevich Alexei.

The legend of Anastasia's possible survival and escape became one of the celebrated mysteries of the 20th century and fuelled the tales of at least ten women who claimed to be the missing grand duchess.

The most famous was Anna Anderson, who contended she had feigned death during the assassination and had escaped with the help of a compassionate guard who rescued her from among the corpses.

Anderson first came to public attention in Germany in 1922, as rumours of Anastasia's survival spread.

When Anderson died in 1984 her body was cremated. However, ten years later, tests comparing Anderson's DNA taken from a tissue sample with that from the blood of Prince Philip, a close relative of Empress Alexandra, disproved her claims.