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Police seek girl missing in international ‘tug-of-love’

Latest update : 2009-03-22

French police are on the alert after a three-year-old girl at the centre of a custody battle between her French father and Russian mother was abducted in southern France. Her father claims his estranged Russian wife had kidnapped little Elise.

AFP - European police were Saturday seeking a three-year-old girl in the middle of an international tug-of-love after her French father said his estranged Russian wife had kidnapped her.

Jean-Michel Andre, a researcher in oceanography from the south of France, said two men dressed as security agents hit him hard before taking his daughter, Elise, as she returned home from school in the city of Arles on Friday.

In an interview with AFP, Andre said he was "certain" that the third person in the team -- a woman dressed in black and wearing a wig -- was his estranged wife Irina Belenkaya.

Police on Saturday issued a continent-wide alert over the missing girl, whose father was given custody of the child by a French court in 2007.

The prosecutor said the dragnet across Europe was of an "exceptional" scale and involved police, border and immigration officials.

Legal battles over custody issues have been launched in both countries. The girl has dual nationality and a Russian court gave her mother custody.

Her father told AFP that he managed to spirit Elise out of Russia in 2008 after she was taken there by her mother and vowed he was ready to do so again.

On Saturday afternoon, French police sources said the suspected kidnappers and the girl boarded a plane bound for Moscow from Switzerland, where they had been spotted earlier in the day.

But Andre late Saturday said he had been shown faxed copies of the passports of the four travellers, "which correspond neither to those of my daughter, nor my wife, nor the attacker whom I saw."

He added: "I am still keeping hope, there is a possibility that she is still in Switzerland."

The French prosecutor in charge of the case, Antoine Paganelli, also told journalists that earlier reports that the girl was on the Moscow flight were false.

"The verifications by the Swiss were extremely precise and minute and do not prove that the child took a flight to Moscow," he said.

"The father did not recognise the child on the passport," a copy of which was faxed by Swiss authorities.

A woman had alerted French police saying she had seen the girl and her mother board a train from the French city of Montpellier to Geneva.

Andre said he was "sure" Belenkaya was behind the kidnapping and urged her to get in touch with the police as soon as possible.

"If she does this, she will behave like Elise's mother, not like a madwoman," he said.

Andre said he would return to Moscow, despite being the subject of a Russian arrest warrant, to seek his daughter and bring her back to France.

"I will go to Moscow. I will bring her back," Andre told AFP. "She is my daughter.

"There is an arrest warrant against me because I sneaked out of the country," he said of his last bid to recover Elise.

"If I enter Russia now it would be suicide, you saw what happened to me yesterday," he said. "I have to enter under a false name with a false passport."

Date created : 2009-03-22