Interpol on lookout for toddler snatched from French father

AFP , MARSEILLE, FRANCE

Tue, Mar 24, 2009 - Page 6

Interpol issued a search notice on Sunday for a missing three-year-old girl snatched from France amid a battle for custody between her French father and Russian mother.

France had already alerted police across Europe for signs of the girl and her mother, Irina Belenkaya, and it was at their request that Interpol issued a yellow notice, which is used to help missing persons, often minors.

The Interpol notice, sent out to police forces in its 187 member states, carries a photo of Elise Andre together with a physical description and other identifying details, such as the fact that she speaks French.

Three-year-old Elise was grabbed from her father, Jean-Michel Andre, in the south of France on Friday by two men and a woman. Andre was beaten up during his daughter’s abduction.

The move by the international police organization came as France’s embassy in Moscow moved to quash claims that the girl had flown with her mother to Russia.

“The latest information is that they are not on Russian territory,” a French diplomat said.

Andre, who appeared on French TV covered in bruises and with one eye half-closed, said two unidentified men beat him up and snatched his daughter as he collected her from school in the southern town of Arles.

Investigators in southern France said there was no evidence at this stage that the girl’s mother was involved.

After a false alert on Saturday that had suggested the girl might be in Russia, they had now turned their attention to Switzerland, local prosecutor Antoine Paganelli said.

“At the present time, the most likely hypothesis comes from the testimony of a Swiss national who says she saw the child accompanied by a woman in a train heading towards Switzerland on Friday,” he said.

“The Swiss authorities have been alerted and are taking the necessary steps,” he said.

Earlier on Sunday, Russian authorities said they would inform the French if the girl turned up in Russia.

“But there can’t be any talk of detaining the child’s mother,” Interfax quoted Russian Interior Ministry spokesman Oleg Yelnikov as saying. “A child can’t be considered kidnapped if it’s by the parent and there’s no use of violence or involvement by other persons.”

In France, the girl’s father said he was certain the third person in the team — a woman dressed in black and wearing a wig — was his estranged wife.

Last year, Andre himself snatched the girl from a street in Moscow after the mother took the daughter from him against his will and in defiance of a French court ruling.

Since then, he said, he had been afraid that the mother might try to snatch the girl and he had changed homes in France several times.

But he said he was ready to go to Russia to get his daughter, although he is subject to a Russian arrest warrant.