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Return of Ethiopian Monument by Italy Delayed - 2004-08-09

More than half a century after making a promise to Ethiopia to return the Aksum Obelisk, Italy has finally dismantled the monument. The obelisk has made it only as far as a warehouse in Rome, and its shipment to Aksum is still some time off.

The earliest Ethiopians may see their beloved 1,700-year-old Aksum Obelisk return home is October, but the Italian Foreign Ministry has yet to announce a definitive date. Experts say local weather conditions must stabilize first. They say it would be risky for a plane loaded with parts of the obelisk to land in Aksum before the seasonal rains stop.

But Ethiopians say they fear there could be more delays, and for a good reason. The obelisk was stolen in 1937, during Italy's colonial invasion of Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia, by troops loyal to Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. After the war, Italy agreed to its return in an agreement signed in 1947.

"We just want them to honor that treaty, that's all," said Mengistu Hulluka, Ethiopia's ambassador to Rome.

He said there will be nation-wide celebrations when the obelisk is finally returned, because it is a symbol of Ethiopian pride.

"It means a lot to us. It's our heritage, our history. It reflects, really, our ancestors," said Mr. Hulluka.

Ambassador Hulluka was present when the obelisk was dismantled at the end of last year. It took three days for the delicate operation to be completed. The ambassador says the Italians were very professional.

"I was there, standing, you know, when each piece was taken apart, from seven a.m. in the morning, until seven p.m. in the evening," he said. "I was seeing them, how meticulous they were, really, in dismantling it. Even they use computer technologies to see if there is any crack really in dismantling it. So, they did a good job."

The 24-meter granite monument was taken down in three pieces, the original ones before it was erected in Rome. Cost of the operation: 400,000 euros.

Packed and ready to go, the pieces are now being stored inside a military hangar at Rome's airport under 24-hour surveillance.

Some observers say the obelisk's return is a way for Italy to close, once and for all, its Fascist imperialist chapter with Ethiopia. Mr. Hulluka says Ethiopia holds no grudges.

"There is no enmity," said Ambassador Hulluka. "We have been working cordially with Italians. Some of the remnants during the war, they have opened up all kinds of businesses. They are respected."

Until it was taken down, the obelisk stood in a traffic-choked square in Rome, without any identification.