LONDON (AFP).- The governor of Easter Island on Tuesday tearfully begged the British Museum to return one of its famous statues, saying: "Give us a chance so he can come back".
The London museum has held the Hoa Hakananai'a, one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island's stone monoliths, for 150 years.
"My grandma, who passed away at almost 90 years, she never got the chance to see her ancestor," said governor Tarita Alarcon Rapu after meeting officials from the British Museum, accompanied by Felipe Ward, Chile's national assets minister.
"I am almost half a century alive and this is my first time," she added.
The statue, or "moai", is one of hundreds originally found on the island.
Carved by Polynesian colonisers, each of the big-headed figures was considered to represent tribal leaders or deified ancestors.
It was an emotional moment for the indigenous Rapa Nui visitors when they saw the basalt statue, which for them, contains the spirit of their people.
The monolith stands 2.4 metres tall and weighs four tonnes.
"I believe that my children and their children also deserve the opportunity to touch, see and learn from him," Rapu said, with tears in his eyes.
"We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul," she added.
Hoa Hakananai'a was taken without permission in 1868 by the British frigate HMS Topaze, captained by Richard Powell, and given to Queen Victoria.
The British Museum has faced numerous claims to return artefacts to the countries they originate from, including the Elgin Marbles to Greece and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
The Rapa Nui people, who last year gained self-administration over their ancestral lands on Easter Island, have launched a campaign to recover what they consider as one of the most important statues of the nearly 900 scattered across the South Pacific island.
With its scowling eyes, straight-lined mouth and paunchy profile, the monolith stands at the entrance to a gallery in the British Museum.
The moai is distinguished by carvings on the back depicting the island's birdman cult and other ceremonial aspects of Easter Island's enigmatic past.
The Rapa Nui believe it brought peace to the island, around the year 1000, ending inter-tribal wars.
After the meeting, Ward said he was optimistic but cautioned that the campaign for the return of the statue would be a long one.
"This is the first of many conversations we will have," he told reporters at the museum.
"We are looking forward to the next, and probably the Second one will be in Rapa Nui (Easter Island), where we invited the authorities of the museum."
It is the first time that the British Museum, which holds cultural treasures from around the globe, has agreed to hold talks about the statue.But on Tuesday the museum was talking only of a loan, not the return, on the artefact.
"The museum is one of the world's leading lenders and the trustees will always consider loan requests subject to usual conditions," a spokeswoman said.
The institution typically states its exhibits can be seen by millions of visitors for free in a global heritage context.
© Agence France-Presse