Tue, Jan 04, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Italy says it is now ready to return obelisk to Ethiopia

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A long-running cultural and diplomatic wrangle looks likely to be resolved within months, with the return of a 1,700-year-old obelisk that was hauled out of Ethiopia by Italian colonial troops in the fascist era.

The government in Addis Ababa announced this week that the treasured stone column would be flown home from Rome in May, putting an end to years of procrastination and 18 months of logistical delays.

Italy first promised to give back the Axum obelisk in 1947. But it was not until November 2003 that Silvio Berlusconi's government signed a deal with the authorities in Addis Ababa, and the 200 tonne column was divided into sections for its return journey.

Symbol

Until then the obelisk, which Ethiopians regard as a symbol of their national identity, had stood incongruously outside the headquarters of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, being besmirched by traffic pollution.

Benito Mussolini had ordered the column to be erected as a memorial to the defeat and subjugation of Ethiopia.

The Addis Ababa government has promised a one-day national holiday to mark its return.

Last July, nine months after the obelisk was taken apart, an Italian newspaper revealed that it was lying under tarpaulins in the back yard of a Carabinieri barracks outside Rome. The government had said it was under armed guard at the international airport.

Problems

One of the problems was money. Italy had agreed to underwrite the cost of the operation, but the government has slashed departmental budgets to fund tax cuts and stay within deficit limits imposed by Italy's membership of the EU.

On a visit to Rome in November, Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zalawi, signalled that the cash had been found. The remaining problem was to find a plane big enough to carry the vast granite chunks back to Axum, in northern Ethiopia, where the column once stood -- and where an airfield has been created to receive it.

Ethiopian officials say this problem too is now solved; it is the first time either government has given a firm date for the operation.

Axum is more than 2,000m above sea level and its rarefied air exacerbates the considerable difficulties of landing a huge plane with a weighty load.

According to one estimate the heaviest cargo that could be landed safely on the airstrip would be around 55 tonnes; the obelisk's heaviest segment is 87 tonnes.

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