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Axum Obelisk's Return to Ethiopia Delayed

A year ago, the Italian government dismantled the Axum Obelisk to return it to its rightful owner, Ethiopia. However, the obelisk is still lying in pieces in a military warehouse, near Rome's Ciampino Airport. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has arrived in Rome to discuss when and how it will be taken back.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has arrived in Rome for two days of meetings with Italian leaders. It is the first visit to Italy by an Ethiopian prime minister in 32 years.

The main purpose of his visit is to discuss the return of the Axum obelisk, believed to be at least 2,000 years old.

The 24-metre granite monument was taken in 1937, during Italy's colonial invasion of Abyssinia - modern-day Ethiopia - by troops loyal to Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. After the war, Italy pledged to its return, in an agreement signed in 1947.

The obelisk is believed to have been a funeral stele that was used to mark graves. It was one of the biggest granite pieces ever quarried and carved. Unlike most other surviving steles, which are blank, the Axum obelisk is decorated with carved designs.

For years the Axum obelisk stood in Rome, in front of Mussolini's Ministry of Italian Africa, as a symbol of dominance. The building later became the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

A year ago, the obelisk was taken down in the same three pieces in which it was shipped to Rome. But a number of difficulties emerged, repeatedly delaying its return.

First, the Ethiopians had to build a landing strip and then a suitable transport plane was needed to carry the sections of the obelisk, the heaviest of which weighs more than 80 tons. Finally, the money for the transport project had to be found.

Italian Foreign Undersecretary Afredo Mantica says all transport problems have been sorted out. He says the obelisk, which will be taken back, in three separate flights, will leave by April, at the latest, ahead of the rainy season in Ethiopia.

When the obelisk finally returns to Ethiopia, it is expected to be placed in an archeological park at Axum. The ancient holy city is still an important Coptic Christian center in the upland plain of the Tigris River and is home to some 50 other smaller obelisks.

Undersecretary Mantica has insisted that the obelisk is going back to its country of origin as a voluntary contribution on the part of the Italian government to the national identity of Ethiopia.