Pressure mounts for return of Axum obelisk

Calls for the return of the Axum obelisk to Ethiopia are mounting after the ancient monument was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm in Rome last week.

The 25-metre high granite monument was looted from the holy city of Axum in northern Ethiopia on the personal orders of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, after his troops invaded the country in 1937.

The obelisk was erected in the Italian capital, where it still stands, and has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between the two countries for 60 years. Ethiopia has repeatedly called for the return of the monument.

The Ethiopian authorities have said Italy must be held responsible for the damage. Several large chunks from the top of the obelisk crashed to the ground during last week's thunderstorm. The Committee for the Return of the Axum Obelisk, which met on Friday, said the damage would not have been caused if the ancient stele had been returned.

“Ethiopia has asked for the return of the monument for the last three years but the Italian government does not have the will to return it,” the committee said in a statement. “That is why we hold the Italian government responsible for the damage.”

Ambassador Teshome Toga, the minister for youth, culture and sports, has been leading calls for the return of the obelisk - one of the most sacred artefacts in Ethiopian history.

Italy has now indicated it may return the obelisk which is more than 3,000 years old and weighs 160 tonnes. Its reasons for not doing so had centred on the fact that moving the monument could damage it.

"This is indeed a good time to send the obelisk back," junior culture minister Vittorio Sgarbi said, according to the BBC. "Now that it has already been damaged, we might as well give it back. It would be meaningless to restore it first and then send it back."