The 200-tonne granite column was given a return date after an American company agreed to provide a plane big enough to carry the monument back in segments, the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Sports said on Thursday.

Italy promised in 1947 to give back the 1700-year-old obelisk, a symbol of the dawn of Ethiopian civilisation, but arguments and logistical problems have delayed its return.

In November, the Italian and Ethiopian foreign ministries signed a deal for a final handover, but no date was set.

Italy in 2002 took down the obelisk from the central Rome site where Benito Mussolini erected it as symbol of Italy's victory over Ethiopia in the years leading up to the second world war.

Returning the segments of the obelisk and the machinery to put it back together is a gargantuan logistical task.

Special runway

Landlocked Ethiopia had to build a special runway for the only aircraft big enough to carry the pieces, the US-built C-5 Galaxy and the Russian-made Antonov 124. An Antonov will be used.
 

"We still vividly remember the suffering of innocent and unarmed civilians by mustard gas that rained from Italian fascist planes. The return of the obelisk is therefore a victory to those who sacrificed their lives fighting against the invasion"

Mogese Tekle-Michael, Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development

Ethiopia plans to celebrate the obelisk's return with a national holiday, the ministry said.

Aside from its historical importance to Ethiopians, the monument will take on new significance when it returns, said Mogese Tekle-Michael, deputy head of the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development.

"We still vividly remember the suffering of innocent and unarmed civilians by mustard gas that rained from Italian fascist planes," he said.

"The return of the obelisk is therefore a victory to those who sacrificed their lives fighting against the invasion."

The monument from pre-Christian Ethiopia is a funerary stele - the largest and finest from the ancient site of Axum in northern Ethiopia, considered to be the cradle of its civilisation.