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Friday, 22 June, 2001, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
No return for Ethiopian treasure
Axum obelisk from Ethiopia Online website
The obelisk's return would fulfil a longstanding promise
By Nita Bhalla in Addis Ababa

Ethiopia has renewed its demand for the return of one of its most famous monuments - an obelisk which was taken by the army of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini more than 60 years ago.


We doubt the sincerity of the Italians

Yemane Kidane
Italy had said last December that the obelisk would be sent back but nothing seems to have happened.

Yemane Kidane, from Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the return of the Axum obelisk was "long overdue" and that the Ethiopian people were tired of waiting.

"The Italians are dragging their feet on this issue. They promised to return the obelisk, which is a symbol of our culture and history, many times and we are still waiting," said Mr Kidane.

Looting

The Italians looted the monument in 1937, when Ethiopia was under Italian occupation. The 24-metre (79-foot) granite monument was cut into three pieces before being shipped to Italy on the personal orders of Mussolini, whose forces had invaded Ethiopia a year earlier.

Ethiopia map
Axum is considered the cradle of Ethiopian civilisation
The Italian government has repeatedly promised to return the 160 tonne monument, which dates back an estimated 3,000 years.

Rome initially pledged to return it in 1948. In 1997, Italy again promised after signing a bilateral agreement, specifying its return the same year.

And even as recently as last year, Italy's former deputy foreign minister, Senator Rino Serri renewed Italy's commitment to return the monument.


We said that we would return the obelisk and we intend to fulfil our obligation

Italian ambassador in Ethiopia
But more than 60 years after it was looted, the obelisk still stands in Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena, near the Coliseum.

"After all these broken promises, we doubt the sincerity of the Italians," said Mr Kidane.

The Ethiopian government's stand has been supported by two of the country's most prominent scholars: Professor Richard Pankhurst and Professor Andreas Eshete, who are members of Ethiopia's National Co-ordinating Committee for the Return of the Axum Obelisk.

In an open letter to the new Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the two scholars last week demanded the return of the obelisk.

"We cannot believe that the Italian people want to retain an obelisk which was erected in Rome to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Mussolini's seizure of power, which in Rome symbolises the Fascist regime in both Italy and Ethiopia," the two academics wrote.

Obelisks in Axum
Obelisks still dominate the skyline of Axum, though Mussolini chose the tallest
The Italian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Guido La Tella, however, denies accusations that Italy has broken its promise.

"We said that we would return the obelisk and we intend to fulfil our obligation," he said.

He refrained, however, from giving a time frame for the obelisk's return.

"There has been a delay due to technical difficulties. It is an ancient structure and it is very fragile, so we want to make sure that it is transported back to Ethiopia safety. We are currently doing a risk assessment to that effect," Ambassador La Tella said.

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See also:

13 Jul 00 | Africa
Ancient Axum profits from peace
21 Dec 00 | Africa
Eritrea to release Ethiopian POWs
12 Dec 00 | Africa
Horn peace deal signed
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