Italy returns orphan girl to Belarus-media

ROME (Reuters) - Italian authorities have returned to Belarus a 10-year-old orphan girl who had been hidden by an Italian couple who feared she would be abused if she was sent back to the orphanage in her home country.

The girl disappeared more than three weeks ago just as she was due to return to the orphanage where the Italian family who host her each year for holidays believes she was sexually abused.

Her case has divided Italy and strained relations between the two countries -- with Minsk complaining formally about what it called a "deliberate abduction".

Fearing she would be abused again if she returned home, Alessandro Giusto and Chiara Bornacin sent the girl -- known as Maria in Italy to protect her identity and in Belarus as Vika, short for Viktoria -- to a secret place on September 8.

On Wednesday, police found her near the northern city of Genoa and she was put into care. On Friday night she was put on a private aircraft back to Belarus, RAI state radio reported.

Neither the Belarus embassy nor the Italian justice ministry were immediately available for comment.

The couple, who speak of themselves as the girl's parents and had said they would rather go to prison than allow her to go back to Belarus, rushed to Genoa airport but were too late.

"They took her away like thieves, hidden, without even her clothes without saying goodbye to her parents. It's disgusting, disgusting, I'm ashamed to be Italian," Chiara told reporters.

Belarus denied the accusations of abuse at the orphanage in Vileika, north of Minsk, and dismissed the Italian couple's claim as "a fantasy invented by an Italian family which wants to have a child".

Vika has spent the summer with the Italian couple for the past four years, one of 60,000 Belarus children who have treatment and holidays abroad under a programme for children suffering long-term consequences of the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago.

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.