Child row upset Belarus-Italy ties

(ANSA) - Rome, September 20 - A tug-of-war involving a 10-year-old Belarussian child continued to cause diplomatic tensions between Belarus and Italy on Wednesday .

Belarussian Ambassador to Italy Alexei Skripko renewed his country's demands that the child, who has been hidden away by an Italian couple, be sent back home immediately .

He stressed that the Belarussian foreign ministry regarded the case as a kidnapping .

"Bielorussia wants a full investigation into the circumstances of this prolonged kidnapping including the punishment of all those responsible for carrying out and aiding these illegal acts," the ambassador said .

The child at the centre of the row, who has been given the cover name Maria, was due to return to Belarus 13 days ago after spending the summer with temporary Italian foster parents .

But the foster parents, Maria and Alessandro Giusti from Cogoleto near Genoa, are refusing to hand Maria back after she revealed she had been sexually abused by other children in her orphanage back home .

The couple have taken Maria to a secret hiding place with the help of their own parents and are defying threats of arrest in their determination to prevent the child being sent back to Belarus .

They now want to adopt Maria .

Skripko said he was "extremely worried for the life and health" of Maria, whom he said needed urgent psychological assistance .

He said the Belarussian government insisted that the Italian authorities "guarantee respect for Italian law and public order" .

Meanwhile, thousands of Italian foster parents fear the Giustis' actions could jeopardise the annual temporary adoption programme of which Maria was part .

Every winter and summer, thousands of Belarussian children travel to Italy to stay with temporary foster parents in a programme which was first launched after the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in neighbouring Ukraine .

Belarus has suspended the programme until the Maria case is resolved .

A Genoa juvenile court has ordered the Giustis to hand back Maria but the couple told reporters last week: "The child has been subject to terrible violence in her home country and has threatened to kill herself if she is sent back" .

"The Italian State has to deal with this case. Our Constitution guarantees people's right to life, health and physical well-being," they said .

Attempts by Italian Justice Undersecretary Daniela Melchiorre to mediate in the affair have so far failed .

Melchiorre said on Tuesday that she was having difficulties in arriving at a solution because of the "intransigence of the parents" .

"The family is refusing to respect international accords and we can only invite them to rethink their position and obey the law," she said .

The Giustis and their parents are all under investigation for child abduction by the Italian judicial authorities .