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Ethiopia waits for the Axum obelisk - again

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AXUM, Ethiopia, Feb 26 (Reuters) Nearly a year after a triumphant return home, three pieces of Ethiopia's national pride are still in their boxes.

The Axum obelisk, stolen by Italian fascist invaders in 1937 and given back last April, still has not been re-erected at its original site, a place that was once the centre of Ethiopia's ancient Axumite civilisation, a powerful trading empire.

For Ethiopians who watched the three granite pieces flown home to cheers and cries of joy nearly seven decades after the national treasure was taken to Rome, that is almost inexcusable.

''Unless it is erected, if it lies there, what purpose does it serve for the people?'' retiree Wolde Rufael Asfaw asked, recalling tales of its theft from his boyhood.

The 24-metre obelisk now lies in three metal shipping cradles covered by tin roofs outside a field of more than 120 other similar funeral monuments in Axum, 850 km north of the capital Addis Ababa.

A sun-faded sign showing the Ethiopian and Italian flags hangs on one, a symbol of the cooperation that brought the 1,700-year-old obelisk back and started to close a long-festering wound.

Confusion has swirled about why the 160-tonne obelisk, which was to have been put back together and raised within three months, is not standing yet in its rightful home -- a field in the north of Axum nestled at the bottom of a rocky ridge, crested by trees and dotted with auburn boulders.

Some accuse the government of indifference -- or more cynically, of ignoring the obelisk after using it for pre-election propaganda.

Others argue re-erecting it will endanger untold archaeological treasures at the site or be too difficult to carry out correctly.

CULTURAL HERITAGE Whatever the reason, it is hard to underestimate how important a symbol the obelisk, known by archaeologists as a stele, is to the Horn of Africa country.

''The obelisk is cultural heritage in Ethiopia, and it was a unifying factor. There were no ethnic differences, religious or otherwise, when it came back,'' Wolde said.

The obelisk returned just before Ethiopia's political temperature started rising ahead of parliamentary elections in May, and before ethnic divisions opened up in a way that later would become an undercurrent in post-election violence that killed more than 80 people.

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