Snatched toddler reunited with French father

14th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

A three-year-old girl caught in the centre of an international custody battle between her French father and Russian mother has been found in Hungary following the arrest of her mother.

BUDAPEST – The father of a three-year-old who was kidnapped in March in southern France, was reunited with his daughter Monday in Hungary after police arrested the girl's mother.

"The father arrived in the afternoon to pick up little Elise and said he would return with her to France immediately," Tamasne Makara, director of childcare facilities in Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg county, was quoted as saying by Hungarian news agency MTI.

"She recognised me straight away," Elise's father Jean-Michel Andre added from Hungary in a phone conversation which his lawyer in France, Victor Gioia, allowed journalists to listen in on.

Three-year-old Elise Andre, at the centre of an international custody battle between her French father Jean-Michel and her Russian mother Irina Belenkaya, was abducted by two men and a woman in the southern French city of Arles on 20 March.

Her father, who was badly beaten during the kidnapping, later told AFP that the woman – dressed in black and wearing a wig – was certainly his estranged wife, from whom he split in 2007.

Interpol issued a search notice for the toddler on 22 March after France had already alerted police across Europe.

Following this, Belenkaya was arrested by Hungarian police Sunday at the Ukrainian border with her daughter.

"Yesterday early afternoon a Russian citizen with a small girl wanted to pass the Hungarian-Ukrainian border by car at Tiszabecs," in eastern Hungary, Gergely Fulop, a spokesman of Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg county police, told AFP Monday.

"The border guard checked the Schengen database and found that the woman was wanted for a criminal act while the small child, born in 2005, had been reported missing," Fulop said.

"The woman was taken into custody in Nyiregyhaza," he added.

Elise, meanwhile, was placed in a nearby childcare facility at Nyirszolos, where she was reunited Monday afternoon with her father, after he submitted proof that he was her legal guardian.

"She recovers really quickly, she was very confused," Andre said in the phone conversation with his lawyer.

The toddler was heard in the background saying "I'm tired, daddy."

It was still unclear when the two would return to France.

The saga has been complicated by a Russian court awarding Belenkaya custody rights, while French authorities say Elise is in her father's custody.

After Interpol issued the search notice for the three-year-old, Russian authorities said they would inform the French if she turned up in Russia, but warned that they would not arrest the mother.

Andre himself abducted Elise from a street in Moscow last year after Belenkaya took her to Russia against his will and in defiance of a French court ruling.

Gioia said Monday that his client now wanted to "avoid causing further distress to the child."

"He wants his daughter to have a more or less normal life," he added. "He does not want another round of trench warfare against the mother."

A French government source added that: "The French authorities, together with the Russian authorities, will try in the next few days to find a solution with the family that is in the child's best interests."

The director of the childcare centre in Nyirszolos, Edvin Ziman, told AFP Monday: "After getting over the first shock, Elise is feeling all right, she is out playing with the other kids."

"We explained to her that her mother is all right and that her father will arrive here around 4:00 or 5:00 pm this afternoon to pick her up."

"She is a very communicative and friendly child who is now completely calm and is playing with the five other kids outside," Ziman added.

Andre, who still bears scars from the kidnapping, told his lawyer: "She was very well treated at this centre, we spent an hour just chatting. She gave me a kiss on the eye to make it better."

According to local police spokesman Gergely Fulop, the car with Hungarian plates in which Belenkaya and her daughter were found Sunday, was driven by a man. The driver, who had a Hungarian name, was not detained.

AFP / Expatica

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