The bones of Russia's last czar were loaded into black funeral vans Thursday and driven through the streets of the old imperial capital, 80 years after the monarch was forced into Siberian exile and executed.

Spectators lined up four deep on the sidewalk and watched in silence as the long procession moved through St. Petersburg, slowing as it passed the Winter Palace, the czar's official residence.At the end of the route, military pallbearers took the coffins from the vans and carried them, slowly and stiffly, into the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, resting place of czars since Peter the Great.

The remains of Nicholas II and his family were flown here Thursday from the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, where they were found.

The czar's burial, set for Friday, was intended as a healing gesture and an act of repentance for the abuses of the communist era. But it has been mired in controversy as politicians and religious leaders argued over how to handle the service.

In a surprise development Thursday, President Boris Yeltsin changed his mind and announced he would attend Friday's service. The president had been planning to skip the ceremony because it had become so contentious.

"The truth (about the executions) was concealed for 80 years," Yeltsin said. "Tomorrow, the truth should be told, and I should take part."

Nicholas abdicated in 1917 amid rising political tensions, and spent the next several months at a palace just outside St. Petersburg. But the Bolsheviks then sent him to Siberia and executed him and his family on July 17, 1918.