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UK museum to return emperor's hair locks to Ethiopia
The Prison, Magdala, 1868. Watercolour by Captain Cornelius Francis James, Bombay Staff Corps, 1868. © National Army Museum, London.

LONDON (AFP).- A London museum said Monday it will return to Ethiopia locks of hair allegedly taken by British troops from an emperor who committed suicide rather than be captured over 150 years ago.

The National Army Museum will repatriate the hair, cut from the head of emperor Tewodros II, following a formal request from Ethiopia last year.

"We believe the Ethiopian government claim to repatriate is reasonable and we are pleased to be able to assist," said Terri Dendy, the museum's head of collections standards and care.

She added it had reached the decision after spending "considerable time researching the provenance and cultural sensitivities around this matter".

"(It) is very much based on the desire to inter the hair within the tomb alongside the emperor," Dendy said, adding that Tewodros was entombed in Trinity Monastery in northern Ethiopia.

The museum noted it was returning the items on the basis they are "human remains".

It acquired the two locks in 1959 -- one of which was framed with a letter and the emperor's seal -- from the family of an artist who had painted the emperor before his death in 1868.

The Ethiopian embassy in London hailed the move a "commendable deed".

"This exemplary gesture of goodwill... signifies the dawn of a new level of shared understanding in our complex history," it said in a statement.

The embassy predicted "jubilant euphoria... is to be expected when it is returned to its rightful home in Ethiopia".

It added officials will hold talks with museum staff on Thursday about repatriating the hair later this month.

Ethiopa believes British soldiers removed the locks from Tewodros -- a Coptic Christian who had ruled the country then known as Abyssinia since 1855 -- after discovering his body inside his fortress at Magdala.

As they closed in, the emperor committed suicide with a pistol that had been a gift from queen Victoria, according to historical accounts.

The troops were on an expedition to free European hostages, including British consul Charles Cameron, taken by Tewodros in anger at London's refusal to help in wars with his mostly Muslim neighbours.

The soldiers also looted an 18-carat gold crown, more than 500 ancient manuscripts and a painting.

Ethiopia has demanded the return of the most significant of these "treasures of Magdala", which are housed in British institutions, including London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

The requests mirror those of numerous African countries who want art and treasures taken during their colonisation by European powers to be repatriated.

© Agence France-Presse

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