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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 November, 2003, 01:46 GMT
Rome obelisk set for African return
Removing the top section of the Axum obelisk
Workers are going to great lengths to prevent the obelisk from cracking
Italian workers have detached the top section of an ancient obelisk looted from Ethiopia by fascist troops in 1937, in preparation for its return home.

The granite column, thought to be about 2,000 years old, was taken from the holy city of Axum in northern Ethiopia when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded the country.

Ethiopia has campaigned to get it back for more than five decades, but despite three agreements with Italy the obelisk remained on a busy roundabout just down the road from the Colosseum.

Last year, Ethiopia had threatened to sever ties with Italy over the obelisk.

"We have a heritage and we want to keep that heritage... It is not something we can value in terms of money," Ethiopia's ambassador to Rome Mengistu Hulluka said.

A small group of Ethiopians living in Italy cheered on the workers as they started the operation.

Delicate operation

The section removed - a block seven metres long - weighs 40 tonnes.

"The difficulty is that we don't want to create any cracks, any damage, only to separate the pieces where they were joined when the obelisk arrived in Rome," said Giorgio Croci, the engineer in charge of dismantling the monument.

Axum obelisk
Ethiopia appealed many times for the return of the monument
The obelisk was originally carved from a single piece of stone, but was transported to Italy in several pieces, then reassembled.

Experts have to carefully disassemble it so it can be shipped home, using jacks and cranes to separate the obelisk into three sections.

It is thought the operation will be over by the end of the year, and if all went according to plan the obelisk could arrive in Ethiopia by next spring.

Some Italians have argued against its return, saying that Italy has lost thousands of treasures to looting and that the obelisk is part of Italian history.

The Ethiopian authorities plan to re-erect the column in Axum.

The BBC's Michael Voss
"It was looted by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini"

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