On Tuesday, a cargo plane carrying one-third of the huge 160-tonne monument landed at Axum airport at 6.15am (0315 GMT) on a flight from Rome.

 

It is to be stored at the airport until the arrival of the remaining parts, expected by next week.

 

The long-awaited and much-delayed return of the 2500-year-old, 24-m funeral stele has now begun in earnest after more than a half century of wrangling between Rome and Addis Ababa.

 

The obelisk was taken by Italian troops as a prize of conquest in 1937 on the orders of leader Benito Mussolini during his brief attempt to colonise Ethiopia.

 

Despite a 1947 agreement that called for its return, the monument has remained in Italy much to the anger of Ethiopia which had accused Rome of stalling on the earlier deal.

 

Until last year when it was dismantled by Italian experts in preparation for its journey home, the monument had stood outside the Rome headquarters of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

 

Earlier this month, after several false starts, Ethiopia announced with great fanfare that the first piece would be returned to Axum on 13 April with the remaining two portions to come by 23 April.

 

But three days later, it was forced to announce the return had been put on hold indefinitely due to "technical and logistic reasons".

 

Celebrations

 

Ethiopia plans elaborate celebrations drawing on both national pride and the country's anti-colonial history to mark its arrival and re-instatement, expected to be completed by June of July.

 

Dubbed Operation Restitution, the airlift will cost an estimated $7.7 million, all of which is being paid by Rome.

 

For workers overseeing its arrival, the return of the obelisk has posed tremendous problems, not the least of which landing a plane laden with granite at a small airport without radar and at altitude where temperatures fluctuate wildly.

 

"To land the equivalent of 60 cars in a small airport at an altitude of 2230m is an extremely complicated operation," said Italian civil engineer Simone Pietri Lattanze.