Confusion as to whether 'tug-of-love' child is in Russia

The whereabouts of three-year-old child Elise Andre, who was snatched from her father's care in southern France, are still unclear. Her father told FRANCE 24 in an exclusive interview that his ex-wife will "never be prosecuted."


Three-year-old Elise Andre, the girl at the heart of a custody tug-of-war between a Russian father and a French mother, has been found in Russia, according to the news agency Interfax, quoting a Russian ministerial source.


This directly contradicts statements made on Sunday by the French embassy in Russia, who said that the girl and her mother were "not on Russian territory."


In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24, the girl's father, Jean-Michel Andre, said of the contradictory reports, "I am restraining myself from reacting," though he added he certainly thought it "possible" his daughter was in Russia with her mother.


Andre further expressed resentment that his ex-wife would go unpunished. "She will not be prosecuted in Russia, even if the kidnapping were violent."

France initiated a continent-wide search for the little girl after she was snatched on Friday by two men and a woman while being collected from school by her father, who was beaten in the incident.

Andre had himself snatched the girl from a street in Moscow last year after the mother, Irina Belenkaya, had taken the daughter from him against his will.

In an interview with AFP after Friday's disappearance, Andre said he was "certain" that the third person in the team that snatched his daughter -- a woman dressed in black and wearing a wig -- was his estranged wife.

Earlier on Saturday, French police said the suspected kidnappers and the girl had boarded a plane bound for Moscow from Switzerland.

But the father later said he had been shown the documents of the travellers thought to be the kidnappers and his daughter and they did not match.

The French prosecutor in the case, Antoine Paganelli, also voiced doubts.

Russian media have noted it is the latest in a series of such custody disputes between French men who have married Russian women, one of which was even discussed by then presidents Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac in 2000.

In Saturday's interview with AFP, Andre said he had 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, even though he is subject to a Russian arrest warrant.

"I will go to Moscow. I will bring her back.... She is my daughter," said Andre, who also appeared on television covered in bruises and with one of his eyes half-closed as a result of his beating.

"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," he told AFP in the interview.

While there was no sign of Belenkaya in Moscow, she too in the past has not been shy of putting her side of the story before the public.

In an appearance on a Russian television chat-show after she lost her daughter last year, she said: "Judging from the father's behaviour, it's completely clear that this man has a maniacal attachment to the child that has absolutely nothing to do with a father's love for his child, but with other feelings."

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