Search on for tsar's missing children

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THREE MONTHS after the reburial of Tsar Nicholas II and most of his family, the search for his two missing children has been resumed with a vengeance - and, with it, a cottage industry that has long thrived on the Romanovs' gilded name.

Nine members of the Russian royal family and their entourage were buried at a ceremony in St Petersburg in July, but the fate of Alexei, Nicholas's haemophiliac son and heir, and that of one of his four daughters - almost certainly Maria - remains a mystery.

Their bodies were not found with the others, who were unearthed in a pit outside the Urals city of Yekaterinburg in 1991. They have been the basis of a tide of speculation and money-making enterprises, much of which is founded on the premise that they survived and for years lived incognito in the West. Over the decades, false Anastasias - the tsar's youngest child, whom many believe to be the missing daughter - have abounded.

But now the hunt for the two corpses has resumed in earnest in Russia, spawning new claims about what happened to them. Last week, a Russian newspaper, Moskovski Komsomolets, ran a story saying that archaeologists may have found the last two Romanovs, relatives of the British royal family.

This was angrily denied by Alexander Avdonin, the man who exhumed the remains near Yekaterinburg and who is playing a central part in the effort to solve the final Romanov mystery. But he confirmed to the Indepen- dent on Sunday yesterday that a team of researchers have found four topaz beads, which are believed to have belonged to the daughters. These were recovered after a painstaking search following the footsteps of Nikolai Sokolov, the professional legal investigator who, in 1919 on the instructions of the White Army, carried out an inquiry into the Romanov murders.

Researchers - including Mr Avdonin - this month began sifting through a four-ton pile of rubble that Sokolov first rummaged through 80 years ago, and have found scores of items - including nails and bullets and the beads - which he appears to have missed, either through haste (the Red Army cut short his work) or a lack of technology. "We found lots of things," said Mr Avdonin. "These are material evidence for the events that took place in 1918."

He said the team has yet to determine the whereabouts of the missing bodies. If they ever do, it will be a squalid business, if the past is any guide. The reburied Romanovs were the subject of a nasty squabble between researchers and the Orthodox Church - which still does not officially accept the authenticity of their bones, despite DNA testing - and also between Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg over which city was most entitled to hold their remains. Church and city bosses are well aware that Romanov relics can draw tourists and Orthodox believers and, with them, cash.

But the absence of the last two bodies will be no surprise to Michael Gray, an educationalist from Northern Ireland, who has just published a book, Blood Relative, in which he claims to be the son of Alexei. He maintains that the tsarevich did not die with the rest of the Romanovs, but survived and escaped via the Crimea on board the British warship Marlborough, and lived in the West under the name "Nikolai Chebotarev".

Mr Gray claims that the tsarevich fell in love with Princess Marina of Greece - a cousin of Prince Philip and later wife of the then Duke of Kent - and suggests that he was the result of their affair. He claims his own DNA was tested and compared with extracts from the Romanov bones and that it proved a "close match". Part 104 of the Romanov story has just begun.