ROME -- 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 were sent back to an orphanage in her home country.
The girl disappeared more than three weeks ago, just before she was scheduled to return to the orphanage where the Italian family who hosts 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 that the girl -- known as Maria in Italy to protect her identity and in Belarus as Vika, short for Viktoria -- would be abused again if she returned home, Alessandro Giusto and Chiara Bornacin sent her to an undisclosed location Sept. 8.
On Wednesday, police found her near the northern city of Genoa and she was put under state care.
On Friday night the girl was flown back to Belarus.
"The girl has been returned to her homeland. Her fate will be decided by the Education Ministry," a spokesman for Belarus' Foreign Ministry said.
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 was too late.