ROME -- Italian police on Wednesday located a 10-year-old Belarussian orphan girl kept in hiding for nearly three weeks by an Italian couple who feared she would be abused if she returned to the orphanage in her home country.
The case of the girl, identified in Italy as Maria to protect her identity and in Belarus as Vika, short for Viktoria, has gripped Italy and stirred a dispute between the two countries -- with Minsk complaining formally about what it called her "deliberate abduction."
"The little girl has been found. I have just received an SMS," Italian Justice Minister Clemente Mastella told the parliament, without giving details.
Alessandro Giusto and Chiara Bornacin, who host Vika each year for holidays, believe she has been sexually abused at the orphanage in Belarus. They sent Vika to a secret place with her foster "grandmothers" on Sept. 8, before she was due to fly back to Belarus.
Acting in defiance of a Genoa court order for the girl to be sent back, the couple then informed police, saying they would rather go to jail than return her to the orphanage in Belarus.
"We are desperate, I can't even stand on my feet," Giusto, who with his wife wants to adopt the girl, told ANSA news agency after Vika was found.
The orphanage last week dismissed the charges as "a fantasy invented by an Italian family that wants to have a child."
The government of Belarus has asked Rome's ambassador for her "immediate and unconditional return." The girl has spent the summer with the Giusto-Bornacin family on the Riviera near Genoa for the past four years.
In a program for children suffering from the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago, about 60,000 Belarussian children have treatment and holidays abroad.
Vika's summer foster parents began suspecting she was being abused after she tied up her Barbie dolls and made them kiss each other, saying it was a "game" played at the orphanage.
They say psychological tests confirmed their fears that she had been sexually abused, possibly by older children.
The director of the orphanage in Vleika, north of Minsk, called Vika a "good, happy, healthy child."