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GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Authorities removed a towering statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin from the central square of his native city in the dead of the night on Friday, carting away the monument to Georgia's most famous native.
The 6-metre-high bronze statue will be replaced by a monument to victims of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia and of Stalin's repression, officials said -- a rebuke to Moscow.
In an unannounced operation that began after midnight and was over before dawn, municipal workers and police took the statue down from its stone pedestal in the small city 80 km (50 miles) west of the capital, Tbilisi.
The statue's removal drew a mixed reactions in Gori, where it was erected a year before Stalin's death in 1953.
"How could they remove it? ... Stalin was a great individual and the most famous Georgian in the world," Irina, who gave only her first name, told Georgian public television.
"Stalin's monument was a symbol of our town," she said.
Outward signs of Stalin's pervasive personality cult were swept away after his death across Georgia and the rest of the Soviet Union, but he is revered by many in Gori.
Another resident, who identified herself as Maya, called it "the right decision. It's more logical to have a memorial to victims of war than a huge Stalin monument."
Widely reviled as a dictator responsible for millions of deaths, Stalin is held up as a hero by supporters across the former Soviet Union who say the country could not have defeated Nazi Germany or become a superpower without his leadership.
For many Georgians including pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili, the monument was a symbol of Moscow's lingering influence two decades after the small nation gained independence in the 1991 Soviet collapse. Resentment of Russia flared with the five-day war in August 2008.
"There is no place for such an ugly idol in Georgia," Culture Minister Nika Rurua said.
Officials said, however, that the monument would be moved to the courtyard of Gori's Stalin museum -- not discarded.
"A new monument dedicated to victims of the Russian aggression will be erected at this place," Zviad Khmaladze, a city council leader in Gori, said in televised comments.
Gori was the hardest-hit Georgian city in the 2008 war. Bombs hit the main square near the statue and buildings nearby.
The new monument will also commemorate victims of Stalin's repression, Rurua said.
The Kremlin is likely to bristle at a monument equating Russia's current leaders with Stalin, and the 2008 war -- which Moscow says was a morally justified response to Georgian aggression -- with the dictator's crimes.
Saakashvili praised the statue's removal when asked about it at a news conference.
"I support the decision of the municipality and the Culture Ministry completely, as a museum of occupation and monuments to those who orchestrated that occupation cannot exist in this country at the same time," Saakashvili said.
He was referring to a museum that opened in Tbilisi during his presidency on the years when Georgia was a Soviet republic.
Russian troops occupied Gori for two weeks after the 2008 conflict, which erupted when Georgia tried to recapture the Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia, just north of the city.
Russia recognised South Ossetia's independence after the war and has strengthened its grip on the rebel region.
Gori hosts some smaller statues and busts of Stalin as well as the museum dedicated to the late leader, who was born in Gori in 1879 and ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death.
Mainly elderly supporters gather outside the colonnaded museum twice a year, on his birthday and the day of his death.
Editing by Steve Gutterman and Myra MacDonald