Belarus suspends U.S. summer holidays for children

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus said on Thursday it would stop sending children for short summer stays with U.S. families after a girl taking part in such a program failed to return home, the second such incident in three years.

Authorities in Minsk initially accused a California family of keeping the 17-year-old in the United States.

Belarusian media later identified the girl as Tatyana Kozyro and said she had chosen to remain after her stay with a host family. News Reports said she lived in a town north of Minsk with her grandmother.

Ex-Soviet Belarus was the state worst hit by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and "health stays" abroad for young people are common practice.

The department for humanitarian activity said in a statement: "Given the situation concerning the illegal detention of a Belarusian minor on the territory of the United States, Belarus proposes an agreement be concluded on conditions for...such visits.

"Pending conclusion of such an agreement, the Belarusian side regrets to say it is obliged to suspend health stays for children in the United States."

Belarusian officials say the girl, one of a group of 25 that was to have flown back to Minsk on August 5, must by law return home and can choose where she wants to live on her 18th birthday.

U.S. diplomats said they wanted the matter solved quickly.

In 2006, an Italian family concealed for three weeks a 10-year-old girl they had hosted for the summer, saying she had been mistreated at her orphanage.

That incident sparked an angry reaction in Belarus and prompted authorities to tighten rules for holidays abroad and adoption procedures for foreigners.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is accused in the West of crushing fundamental freedoms. Relations with the United States are particularly tense over sanctions introduced against oil products company Belneftekhim.

The U.S. ambassador left Minsk in March at the urging of authorities and the embassy staff has twice been reduced. A U.S. lawyer was sentenced to three years in prison this week on charges of industrial espionage and carrying forged documents.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, writing by Ron Popeski; editing by Robert Hart)



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