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With Nelson Mandela still critically ill in hospital, a court battle has erupted among his family members over where to bury three of his children.

The court fight is the latest sign of tensions within the Mandela family as the 94-year-old liberation hero is kept alive on a life support system at a hospital in Pretoria. Several family members have also launched a court battle over control of a $2.8-million Mandela trust fund.

A court in the Eastern Cape, near the ancestral Mandela home, ruled on Friday that the remains of three of Mr. Mandela's children should be returned to their original site in the village of Qunu, where Mr. Mandela spent his childhood and still has a home.

The remains of the three children had been mysteriously exhumed in 2011 and transferred to Mr. Mandela's birthplace, the nearby village of Mvezo, where his grandson, Mandla, is the chief.

Mandla Mandela, as the oldest grandson, often claims to be the heir of the Mandela bloodline and traditional leader of the family clan. But there is a growing rift between him and the other family members. He has been widely criticized for his polygamous marriages, alleged failure to pay alimony, and other controversies.

There have been accusations that he transferred the remains of the three children to his village in a bid to ensure that Nelson Mandela would be buried in the same village – which would ensure its permanent fame as a tourism and pilgrimage site.

South African media reports said 16 to 20 family members went to the Mthatha High Court on Friday to challenge Mandla Mandela's control of the remains, which include those of his father, Makgatho, the second-born son of Nelson.

They said he had dug up the remains and transferred them to his village without their knowledge or permission.

The court ruled on Friday that the remains should be returned to their original location in Qunu, site of the Mandela family cemetery, where Nelson Mandela is expected to be buried.

Nelson Mandela was born in Mvezo, an impoverished hilltop village of cattle and sheep herders above the Mbashe River. But his family moved to Qunu (about 30 kilometres away) when he was just two.

Historians and heritage experts have criticized Mandla Mandela for bulldozing the crumbling remains of his grandfather's birthplace and replacing it with a modern replica. He is developing a tourism industry in the village, including a backpackers lodge, self-catering rooms, a museum, and a replica of the "rondavels" (traditional circular huts) where the Mandela clan lived when he was born. But the project has been plagued with financial problems and other delays.

For his part, Mandla Mandela has chastised his relatives for their court battle over the Mandela trust fund. "For me it was a shocking experience to see that my own family had taken such a position," he recently told City Press, a South African newspaper.

"I will never, while my grandfather lives, or after his passing, be part of the squabbling over his own assets and his own legacy…. We should be preserving his dignity as a family and not be part of stripping it away from him."