Couple fight Belarus for child

Italian foster parents refuse to hand back abused girl (ANSA) - Rome, September 14 - A tug-of-war involving a 10-year-old Belarussian child risked degenerating on Thursday into a diplomatic spat between Italy and Belarus .

The child, an orphan who has been given the cover name Maria, was due to return to Belarus a week ago after spending the summer with temporary Italian foster parents .

But the parents are refusing to hand Maria back after she revealed she had been sexually abused by other children in her orphanage back home .

The Italian couple, Maria and Alessandro Giusti from Cogoleto near Genoa, have taken Maria to a secret hiding place and are defying threats of arrest on kidnapping charges in their determination to prevent the child being sent back to Belarus .

They now want to adopt Maria .

Another child from the same orphanage who also says he has suffered sexual abuse was flown back to Belarus on Thursday morning. The 11-year-old boy's Italian foster parents are also seeking to adopt him .

Belarussian Ambassador to Italy Alexei Skripko insisted on Thursday that Maria also return to Belarus .

He promised that the girl would not be sent back to the same orphanage but would be transferred to a "special centre" in the capital of Minsk where her condition would be assessed and she could receive any necessary physical and psychological assistance .

He stressed that the Giustis were breaking the law .

"This child has been abducted," the ambassador said, adding that "the longer it takes for her to be released, the greater becomes our concern for her health" .

He also obliquely suggested that the annual temporary adoption programme of which Maria was part could be jeopardised by the Giustis' actions .

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. Skripko denied press reports that the Belarussian authorities had already blocked the programme .

But he said that Belarus had decided on a "pause" while the Maria case was being dealt with .

"We believe this is a human case and that it should be treated as such. It will not undermine the solid, trusting and respectful relations between Belarus and Italy, which are in our mutual interests," the ambassador said .

A Genoa juvenile court has ordered the Giustis to hand back Maria but the couple told reporters on Wednesday: "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 .

A meeting on Wednesday between the couple and Skripko failed to break the deadlock .

Justice Undersecretary Daniela Melchiorre offered on Thursday to act as a mediator between the Giustis and the Belarussian authorities .

The undersecretary said she was willing to accompany Maria back to Belarus in person to ensure that she was treated well .

She stressed that the case was a very delicate one, adding: "We wouldn't want it to have a negative impact on the many Italian families who are waiting to adopt Belarussian children" .

Family Policy Minister Rosy Bindi said some 550 adoption procedures were currently under way between Belarus and Italy .

She said she hoped a solution to the Maria case would be found as soon as possible with "full respect for the rights of the child but also for national and international law" .

Welfare Minister Paolo Ferrero took a harsher line .

"Human understanding for the sentiments of the Giustis cannot take precedence over the institutional duty to intervene and resolve a situation which is deteriorating by the day," the minister said .

"This couple are acting in a very serious way by continuing to keep and hide the child... This behaviour is having a damaging impact on the child as well as the hundreds of children whose future trips to Italy are being jeopardised," he said .

But opposition Euro MP Aldo Patriciello, of the centrist, Catholic UDC party, called on the European Union to intervene .

"Europe cannot stand by and watch while the Belarussian authorities drag this child back to Belarus against her will... You can't ask a couple to foster a child which needs help and then prevent them from protecting that child," he said .

He said Europe should take the opportunity offered by Maria's case to tackle the issue of international adoptions with the Belarus government. Such adoptions have become far more difficult in recent years .