Belarus softens line in child row

(ANSA) - Minsk, October 2 - An Italian couple who concealed a Belarussian orphan girl in a bid to prevent her being sent back home might still be able to adopt her, Belarus said on Monday .

Commenting on a case which has been in the media spotlight for almost a month, Belarussian Education Minister Aleksandr Radkov told reporters here that "we do not rule out the possibility that this family can adopt Vika (the child)" .

Vika Moroz, who is 10 years old, was secreted away to a convent in northern Italy by her foster parents Maria and Alessandro Giusto after she told them she had been sexually abused by other children at her orphanage in Belarus .

The couple from Cogoleto near Genoa, who have looked after Maria for the past four summers, defied threats of arrest in their determination to prevent Moroz being sent back .

After a three-week search, police found her last Wednesday at the convent in Saint Oyen near the Swiss border in the company of her foster grandparents .

She was flown back to Belarus on Friday .

The Giustos and their parents now face kidnapping charges .

The case strained relations between Italy and Belarus and risked jeopardising the annual temporary adoption programme of which Moroz was part .

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 Chernobyl disaster in neighbouring Ukraine .

Belarus suspended the programme, which many of the Italian parents hope will eventually lead to permanent adoption, until Moroz's case was resolved .

Radkov said on Monday that the programme would resume and that international adoptions would continue .

He stressed that the Giustos would have to follow proper legal procedures in their request to adopt Moroz .

"If we receive a request, then we will examine it in accordance with the law," he said .

"Belarussians are happy that Vika has returned," he added .

Belarus recently began restricting adoptions by foreign couples. In 2005, two foreign adoptions took place compared to about 600 in 2004 .

Meanwhile, Radkov said Moroz was well and receiving psychological assistance at a "rehabilitation centre" .

But he said that once the treatment was finished, she would be sent back to her old orphanage .

Radkov said two Italian doctors who had accompanied Moroz back to Belarus would be allowed to assess the conditions inside local orphanages .

"They will be able to see for themselves that the children are offered decent living conditions," he said .

On Sunday, the head of Moroz's orphanage, Nikolai Volchkov, accused the Giustos of "lying" about the alleged abuse .

He claimed that the Giustos had had "plenty of opportunities" to adopt Moroz but had failed to file a request to do so .

After Moroz was taken away, the Giustos said they were "desperate" .

"We are desperate and exhausted... Please have pity on Vika, who has suffered from the day she was born," they said .

"She has been subjected to terrible violence in her home country and has threatened to kill herself if she goes back," they said .

But the news was greeted with joy by the other parents involved in the foster scheme .

The parents, who held a demonstration in front of government offices in Rome on Wednesday, said the Giustos' actions had threatened to sink the scheme .

They stressed that some 30,000 Belarussian children were allowed to visit Italy every year and that some 600 adoption applications were currently being processed .

"The Giustos have behaved selfishly, not generously .

They didn't take into account the serious consequences of their actions, which have damaged not only Vika but lots of other children, many of them orphans with major health problems," the association representing the families said