LONDON -- The Warsaw Pact's last Stalinist domino, the tyrannical regime of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, toppled with a violent crash Friday after several days of Europe's bloodiest fighting since the end of World War II.
A newly formed Council of the Front of National Salvation, composed mostly of known Romanian dissidents and the army's chief of staff, announced on Radio Bucharest shortly before midnight that it had taken over until free elections can be held next April.
Even as they spoke, however, sporadic automatic weapons fire was reported continuing in the capital as pro-Ceausescu forces counterattacked in an apparently doomed, last-ditch effort to overturn the popular uprising, which had grown from a few hundred people to millions in less than a week.
Pictures broadcast by Romanian television, which had been taken over by anti-Ceausescu forces earlier Friday, showed what appeared to be thousands of civilians apparently trapped in the crossfire as rival security units battled in the center of the city. Soviet television reported "hundreds dead in the streets."
Television also aired footage that showed residents in the western city of Timisoara digging up three mass graves where thousands of victims of last weekend's crackdown are believed to be buried.
In Bucharest, the lavish presidential palace, from which the 71-year-old dictator and his wife, Elena, had ruled like medieval potentates for 24 years before they fled by helicopter at about noon Friday, was ablaze, as was part of the Communist Party headquarters building.
Ceausescu's whereabouts was still a mystery after conflicting reports by the newly liberated Romanian media, which were monitored in the West.
Romanian television reported that he and Elena, who was also his second in command, had left the country for an undetermined destination. But Radio Bucharest, which was also in the opposition's hands, reported at various times that he had been captured, escaped, then captured again.
The station also reported late Friday that some of the pro-regime forces had surrendered, and the fighting was dying down. But other die-hards were said to be moving through secret tunnels beneath the city, and pockets of resistance remained.
Early today, Bucharest Radio reported that the head of the dreaded Securitate secret security force, which has remained loyal to Ceausescu, switched allegiance and ordered his forces to give up their arms and back the revolt.
The report, monitored in Vienna, said that Gen. Iulien Vlad was "with the people" and "orders all security troops to ally themselves with the army and the people."
It also said that Interior Minister Tudor Postelnicu and First Deputy Prime Minister Ion Dinca, a Politburo member and one of Ceausescu's most trusted men, had been arrested.
There were reports, too, of fighting in other cities, including Timisoara, the western provincial city where the anti-Ceausescu protests began last weekend.
A Bucharest-based British diplomat, in a live telephone interview broadcast by Independent Television News, appealed for Western relief agencies to send emergency medical supplies.
State radio broadcast repeated appeals for Romanians to detain the fleeing dictator, alerting listeners near dusk that he was headed toward Pitesti, northwest of Bucharest, in a red jeep with a broken front window--license plate number ARO244.
The official Soviet news agency Tass said he had used at least two automobiles as well as the helicopter in his attempted escape.
Ceausescu's son, Nicu, said to be a leader of Friday's counterattack by pro-regime security forces, was captured by protesters and shown on national television.
Romanian TV and the state news agency Agerpres said the younger Ceausescu had been captured after trying to assume command of the security forces in Sibiu, where there had been reports of fierce fighting between security forces and rebellious troops.
His face showed signs of bruising around the left eye, but he appeared in far better shape than two badly beaten students introduced earlier to underline the viciousness of the regime's death throes.
While the casualty toll from six days of fighting is still unknown, the first Western reporters to reach Timisoara were told by residents that between 2,000 and 4,500 had died there, many of them buried naked in three mass graves near the city.
Television showed citizens exhuming dozens of bodies, their feet bound with barbed wire, from the graves.
Slobodan Kreckovic, the Yugoslav vice consul in Timisoara, told the British news agency Reuters: "The crimes which have been committed here are beyond description."
Nevertheless, the mood in western Romanian cities visited by reporters after the country's border was opened Friday afternoon was one of jubilation. Television footage showed Romanians dancing in the streets of Arad. In Timisoara, tens of thousands covered the central square at an evening rally.
Elsewhere, the situation was less clear, with reports of battles pitting members of the special security forces under command of the Securitate secret police network against demonstrators and army units defending them in Sibiu, Brasov and other cities as well as in Bucharest.
Sibiu was Nicu Ceausescu's power base, and Brasov was the site of anti-government demonstrations in 1987.
British diplomat Jonathan Lamb said in the ITN television interview that the pro-regime forces are probably fighting more to save their own skins than to bring back Ceausescu.
"I assume that the Securitate are fighting desperately to save their own lives, because they know that if they don't kill, then they'll be killed themselves," he said.
In a printed message flashed across the TV screen, Romanian television warned that drinking water in Timisoara and Sibiu may have been poisoned, presumably by pro-regime forces. There was no confirmation that water supplies had actually been sabotaged, but the warning was in itself an indication of the extraordinary tension in the country.
Bucharest Radio appealed for all medical workers to remain on the job, calling them "the army in white uniform," and asking them to help prevent epidemics.
The thousands reportedly killed during Romania's stunning, weeklong rebellion was all the more notable for having challenged what has long been the Warsaw Pact's most brutal regime and dictatorial regime.
While one after the other of Moscow's one-time satellites in Eastern Europe have overthrown single-party rule this year with virtually no violence, Ceausescu had scorned reform. His was a country in which the power supply could not support more than one 40-watt light bulb per room, and where a woman could go to jail for using a contraceptive. Opponents frequently just disappeared, never to be seen again.
Asked how they put up with it, Romanians themselves used to occasionally cite an old proverb: "The bent head avoids the sword." But in the end, spurred on by the success of neighboring countries in dislodging the Communist monopoly of power, they held their heads high against the regime's bullets and bayonets.
"I think we should spare a thought for the very courageous people who just weren't prepared to knuckle under against a blood-stained tyranny, and who led the protest and paid for it with their lives," British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said after hearing of Ceausescu's ouster. "They'll be real heroes in Romania's history."
The Romanian unrest began last weekend when residents of Timisoara tried to defend the Rev. Laszlo Toekes, an ethnic Hungarian Protestant minister, who was threatened with arrest. Protests grew until Sunday night, when security forces attacked.
As word of the resulting massacre spread through the country, so did anti-government demonstrations. Ceausescu, who had demonstrated his supposed lack of concern by going ahead with a state visit to Iran, returned to Bucharest on Wednesday and ordered a state of emergency imposed in Timisoara.
But it was already too late. Speaking to what was supposed to be a friendly "rent-a-crowd" during a televised address in the capital Thursday, the self-proclaimed "Genius of the Carpathians" was clearly stunned when shouted down by protesters.
Clashes between security forces and demonstrators followed, leaving up to 50 more people dead in Bucharest Thursday afternoon and night. There were also fatal clashes reported in Cluj and other cities as protests spread across the country through the night.
On Friday morning, Ceausescu declared a general state of emergency throughout the country. State radio, still under his control, announced the alleged suicide of Defense Minister Vasile Milea, reporting that he blamed himself for the unrest. The claim later was denied by by an unidentified army general, who implied that Milea had been executed.
Crowds continued to build, and at about noon Bucharest time, state television reporter Emanuel Valeriu telephoned Radio Free Europe headquarters in Munich to say that Ceausescu had been deposed. Demonstrators had penetrated to his office and were throwing his papers out the window even as the dictator fled from the roof by helicopter.
At about the same time, Radio Moscow announced: "The dictator has fallen."
The mood through most of the afternoon Friday was "peaceful and jubilant," according to Agota Kuperman, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest interviewed by telephone. "Thousands of people were on the street. They were enjoying their new-found liberty."
Early Friday afternoon, the anti-Ceausescu forces took over state television. A former Romanian foreign minister-turned-dissident, Corneliu Manescu, suddenly appeared, surrounded by dozens of male colleagues in the main broadcasting studio.
Trembling with emotion, Manescu, 73, called on "the entire population to go out into the street; to go to your local government buildings and to occupy them without force."
And he appealed to members of the armed forces: "Do not use your weapons. Do not shoot people. You are Romanians like all of us. The same heart beats in your breast as in our breasts."
Manescu was later named as a member of the Front of National Salvation's governing council. Others include: Ion Iliescu, a former party leader ousted by Ceausescu in 1971 and the group's spokesman during Friday night's announcement; Doina Cornea, 60, a French teacher from Cluj recently put under house arrest and beaten by police for her outspoken support of human and religious rights; Mircea Dinescu, a dissident poet; Toekes, the minister whose arrest triggered the uprising; Silviu Brucan, a former ambassador to the United States who earlier this year joined five other former Communists in signing a public protest against Ceausescu; and Dumitru Mazilu, author of a critical report to the United Nations on Romanian human rights abuses.
In addition to free elections in April, the program that the Front announced Friday night pledged that Romania will remain in the Warsaw Pact, but as a multi-party democracy under a new name. Henceforth, they said, the country will no longer be the Socialist Republic of Romania, but simply Romania.
Their program also calls for removing Communist ideology from the educational curriculum, freedom of the press, equal rights for minorities and an end to exports of food and petrochemical products in order to improve supplies to 23 million cold and poorly nourished Romanians.
The protesters turned Romanian television and radio into a dramatic, running commentary on the day's extraordinary events.
At first the scene was chaotic, but exhilarating, as amateur speaker after amateur speaker criticized the regime and pledged allegiance to the new order.
"Ceausescu has pushed the country into economic catastrophe," said an unidentified man angrily. "He's guilty of odious crimes against the people. He's a heartless man who ruled with medieval methods."
"I tell you from the soul of the Romanian army that no one will fire upon the Romanian people," promised an unnamed military officer.
At about the same time, an unidentified voice announced over Bucharest Radio: "Brothers! With God's help, we are now in the radio station. We have arrived here with the support of tanks, the army, and thousands of Romanians. . . . After 40 years of lies, listen, Romanian brothers, to the voice of truth."
By 3 p.m., army Col. Nicolae Militaru apologized over state radio for the Romanian army's involvement "in this crime. . . . Children, women, many people, totally innocent people, died." And he appealed to a number of army generals, by name, to "stop the slaughter."
A few minutes later, Radio Bucharest announced that fighting was under way in Sibiu and said the army was calling for help "because its members are being killed by the security forces."
And as darkness fell, the radio appealed for the army and civilians to come protect the broadcasting center from a 2,000-member pro-Ceausescu force heading in its direction. Early today, power at the television station was cut and the sound of gunfire was heard from the building, according to Budapest television. Yugoslavia's Tanjug news agency reported late Friday that forces loyal to Ceausescu shot their way into the station, but rebel army units beat them back.
The situation among Romania's various military forces was not immediately clear, in part because special internal security troops wear uniforms very similar to those of the mostly conscript army.
According to London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, Romania's regular defense forces, including army, navy and air force, total about 170,000 men. There are also about 20,000 border guards who are attached to the Ministry of the Interior, which also controls the national police.
Another 20,000 special internal security troops technically fall under the Ministry of the Interior as well, but are believed actually to be under the control of the dreaded Securitate secret police. These troops are said to have equipment comparable or better than that of the regular army.
The largest armed force in the country is the so-called Patriotic Guard, a workers' militia that serves as a military adjunct to the Communist Party.