Girl sparks Belarus-Italy dispute

By Mark Duff
BBC News, Milan

The Belarusssian ambassador to Italy has demanded proof that the girl at the centre of a diplomatic row is alive and well.

The girl's temporary Italian foster parents have sent her into hiding and refuse to send her back home.

They say she was repeatedly abused at an orphanage in Belarus.

The 10-year-old girl was spending the summer in Italy as part of a programme for children affected by the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The ambassador says he is extremely concerned about her welfare. The girl was meant to have flown back to Belarus a week ago.

Instead, the couple who have provided her with a temporary home for the past few summers sent her into hiding, before reporting what they had done to the local police.

They say the girl, known only by the pseudonym of Maria, has been repeatedly abused at the institution in Belarus where she is normally resident.

They have presented psychiatrists' reports to back their case.

The foster parents say they would rather go to prison than see her forced to return and that they only decided to act after Maria tried to drown herself in the sea.

Local support

The case has now prompted a full-blown diplomatic incident.

The Belarussian ambassador in Rome says his country's sovereignty demands the girl's return as ordered by an Italian court.

He also warned that the furore could hit the hopes of hundreds of Italians who want to adopt Belarussian orphans.

But the couple's local community, on the Italian Riviera outside Genoa, is closing ranks to prevent Maria's return.

The local priest told one Italian newspaper that if necessary he would offer her sanctuary in his church.

"I'm ready to sidestep the law for her," he said. "Just as lots of priests did to protect Jews during the war."