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Italy to Return Axum Obelisk to Ethiopia

After decades of delays, an ancient Ethiopian obelisk looted by Italian troops during the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, is going back home. The first of three segments is expected to leave Rome by Tuesday.

The first and top segment of the obelisk - a national treasure for Ethiopia - will be traveling home aboard a Russian transport plane, leased by the Italian authorities.

The company organizing the airlift has said no one has ever attempted to fly such a massive monument. The obelisk, which was taken down in three segments, weighs 160 tons.

The Italian Foreign Ministry says the two remaining pieces of the obelisk are expected to be returned by the end of this month.

The 24-meter granite block is believed to be around 1,700 years old. It was taken away from the Ethiopian city of Axum in 1937, after Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini ordered its seizure.

The monument was then erected in downtown Rome as a war prize from Italy's invasion of Ethiopia.

The obelisk's long-delayed return was initially scheduled to be completed last week, but last-minute technical problems forced a postponement. The obelisk has been a source of contention between Italy and Ethiopia for decades.

Italy signed a pledge to the United Nations in 1947 to return all of the property it plundered from Ethiopia. Rome signed two later agreements, in 1956 and 1997, to repatriate the obelisk.

But it was not until Ethiopia threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Rome in 2003 that a final deal to send the obelisk back was reached.

After it was dismantled in October 2003, there were other delays. The Italian authorities could not find a suitable aircraft to carry the massive blocks. Then a special runway had to be built in Axum for the plane to land safely.

The costs of the delicate and complex operation continued to rise. The Italian government initially released 1.5 million euros for the project, but the price tag has since risen to an estimated six million euros.