'Abducted' girl found in Alpine fortress hideout

John Hooper in Rome

A 10 year-old girl who allegedly vowed to kill herself rather than go back to her native Belarus, where she says she was raped and tortured, was last night being held by paramilitary police in Italy after almost three weeks in hiding.

The affair of "Maria", as she is known, has riveted Italian public opinion and sparked an international controversy involving the Italian and Belarussian authorities and the Vatican. A court in Genoa will today rule on an appeal by her temporary foster parents for her to remain with them in Italy.

The girl's days "on the run" ended when paramilitary Carabinieri identified her hideout - a medieval fortress 1,200 metres (4,000 ft) up in the Alps that is run by the Roman Catholic church as a centre for spiritual retreats.

The Ansa news agency quoted a member of the order in charge of the centre, Canon Francis Darbellay, as saying: "We knew almost at once that it was the girl the newspapers were talking about." He added that she was looked after by two women she referred to as her "grannies".

Photographs of two middle-aged ladies - Maria Elena Dagnino and Maria Bordi, the mothers of the girl's temporary foster parents - had earlier been circulated to Carabinieri barracks throughout Italy. With the photos came a notification that the two eminently respectable-looking matrons were wanted for kidnapping. Units were instructed to search rigorously for the women "as if they were [known to be] hiding on your territory".

Maria had unwittingly let the cat out of the bag in a video given to the court and distributed to local television stations by representatives of the temporary foster parents. The girl, who pleaded to stay in Italy, said she was with her "grannies".

The Carabinieri who found her at the 11th century Chateau Verdun de Saint Oyen in the French-speaking Val d'Aosta region did not want to upset her. So they agreed with the two women on a game that encouraged the girl to leave the chateau and climb into their vehicle.

The extraordinary affair began three years ago when the girl, whose real name has been kept secret, arrived to spend the summer on the Italian riviera. An orphan, she was one of tens of thousands of children from Belarus who have benefited from a programme of visits set up after the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

The following year she was found to have marks on her body consistent with beatings and burnings. According to her seasonal foster parents, she revealed a horrific account of sexual, physical and psychological abuse at her orphanage.

Their claims are backed by statements given to the court by psychologists and psychotherapists who have spoken to the child. The seasonal foster parents - a 35-year-old engineer, Alessandro Giusto, and his wife, Maria Grazia Bornacin, a civil servant - testified that the girl tried to kill herself in June rather than be sent back.

They said she had to be dragged from the Mediterranean after nearly drowning herself, and that she then attempted to jump back in, screaming: "I want to die here." She was to have returned to Belarus on September 8, but an hour before her flight took off Ms Bornacin walked into a Carabinieri station and announced that the child had been put into hiding.

By then the Genoa juvenile court had ruled she should go back to Belarus. But the judges stipulated that Maria should not be returned to the same orphanage, at Vileika, 70 miles from Minsk, and that she should be accompanied by two Italian doctors who would monitor her condition for at least a fortnight.

Those guarantees failed to satisfy not only her seasonal foster parents, but also many local people, including church authorities in the town of Cogoleto, where the foster parents live. The daily La Repubblica reported that the bishop of nearby Savona and the Vatican secretariat of state were involved in an attempt to mediate. But Italy's centre-left government insisted that the court's decision must be respected unless it was overturned on appeal.