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.
The former SS officer died last week, aged 100 in Rome, where he spent the end of his life under house arrest for commanding troops who killed 335 civilians in 1944, one of Italy's worst wartime massacres.
He never apologized for his crimes.
Authorities moved his coffin to a military airport near Rome late on Tuesday after clashes between neo-Nazis and residents of Albano Laziale, where the funeral was to have taken place.
Angry 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 was carried out in reprisal for a partisan attack that killed 33 German troops in the city.
"There was an abduction of the body by about thirty people, police or intelligence services, and they beat up four people who were holding a vigil," Priebke family lawyer Paolo Giachini said.
"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 over the removal of his body and for "acts of violence" against those keeping vigil at the headquarters in Albano Laziale of the renegade right-wing 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 Rome police spokesman said the body had to be moved because of concerns about public order.
"The police did their duty. We took it, and moved it somewhere else. We did not steal it," Maurizio Scandale said.
On Thursday Rome prefect Giuseppe Pecoraro signed an order forbidding Priebke's remains to be buried in the city or province of Rome, "in order to avert the highly probable presence of opposing factions at the place of burial".
Argentina, 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.
Giachini's office on Thursday released a video statement by Priebke 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 in Italian. "It was not possible... this was an order from Hitler."
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Barry Moody)