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`DEATH OF A DICTATOR’ TONIGHT ON ABC

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We tend to think of the lowly home video camera as a goof-dispenser for "America's Funniest Home Videos." But it increasingly is used to record serious things, too, such as history.

That's graphically illustrated tonight in Ted Koppel's ABC News special, "Death of a Dictator," about the bloody December revolt in Romania that led to the Christmas Day executions of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena.While ambiguous in spots, it's first-rate in the way it chronicles the revolution by weaving together often-chilling footage shot by Western TV crews and by unidentified Romanians armed only with home video cameras.

The latter footage is grainy, often shot at odd angles. But it's riveting stuff, even an early, almost farcical headquarters scene in which the Romanian army's chief of staff is frustrated by language problems when the battle still is in doubt.

The same footage shows the head of the hated Securitate secret police, who, incredibly, is allowed to join the new regime-in-progress (its officials belatedly suspect him of helping their foes and arrest him).

The headquarters farce contrasts sharply with shots of deadly combat at the Bucharest airport between army troops and the secret police, where there are visible sparks as bullets strike concrete and metal.

Some interviews are remarkable, particularly one with an army major, Mihai Lupoi, an eyewitness to the execution of the Ceausescus shortly after a quick military trial that was only a formality.

The couple, captured on Dec. 22 while trying to flee their country, were found guilty of genocide and other grave crimes.

"We took them out, took them to the wall, and asked to the people, `Who wants to shoot?"' says Lupoi, who occasionally gives a short, eerie chuckle as he speaks in English. "Everybody wanted (to shoot).

"So they selected three people. And they didn't wait for the command to shoot . . . three guns, 90 bullets. I don't know if all of them were in the body. . . . Nobody counted."

Despite its title, "Death of a Dictator" actually is a two-part report. The first is a step-by-step account of the Romanian revolt that was sparked by reports of a December massacre in the border town of Timisoara.

The second examines those reports and how many people actually died in Romania during the revolt, the dictator's long stay in power and Washington's apparent willingness to ignore his tyranny, and whether the revolution really has changed anything in Romania, whether one dictatorship eventually will be replaced with another.