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Italy to Return Ancient Ethiopian Obelisk - 2002-07-21

Italy's government has caved in to Ethiopia's demands for the return of an ancient obelisk looted by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937. Although no date has been announced for its return, Rome said a decision has been made to return the monument to its original site.

The Axum obelisk has been standing in a square in central Rome since it was brought back to Italy after the forces of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1937. The 24-meter granite column was looted from the holy city of Axum in the north African state.

Axum was once the capital of an empire ruled by the Queen of Sheba. Her successors left grand monuments over their burial sites. The Italian dictator stole the grandest of them all. The monument, dating from between the first and fourth centuries A.D. was dismantled and sent on a ship to Italy.

The obelisk was a colonial war trophy, which Mussolini placed in front of the building originally intended as the Ministry for an Italian Africa. It still stands in the same place today. The building has become the headquarters of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Various Italian governments have made promises to return the obelisk to Ethiopia, but none so far has honored its pledge. In some cases they claimed there were practical problems that needed to be resolved first, such as its transportation. The obelisk was badly damaged by lightning in May which caused some stone pieces of the monument to crumble to the ground. The incident effectively blunted the argument that it was safer to keep the monument in Rome. Ethiopia accused Italy of failing to properly protect the obelisk.

Ethiopian officials have grown increasingly unhappy with Italy's failure to return the monument. This year Ethiopia asked the United Nations to intervene to ensure the return of the obelisk. It threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Italy over the issue. In June, the country's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, in Rome for a world food summit at FAO headquarters, called for an end to the obelisk's forced exile.

The government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said a recent decision by the cabinet to return the monument to its original owners has been reached. In addition, the government said it will repair the obelisk before sending it home. No time frame has been given for how long the repair work will take.