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EMBASSY SHELTERS GIRL IN CUSTODY DISPUTE

Torn by a shattered Muslim-Christian marriage, a 12-year-old girl was being sheltered Monday in the Italian Embassy in Kuwait in defiance of a court order granting custody to her Egyptian father.

In a highly unusual move, Italy has dispatched a high-ranking diplomat to Kuwait in an effort to find a solution.

The girl, Erica, turned up at the embassy Jan. 16, vowing not to leave until she won the right to live with her Italian mother. A Kuwaiti divorce court had awarded custody to her father after her parents divorced last year, and she had been living with him.

The saga has captivated Italy, where newspaper editorials have used the case to illustrate the difficulties of marriage between people of different religious backgrounds.

Erica's 32-year-old mother, Stefania, has spoken to several Italian newspapers, accusing her ex-husband of forcing an extremely strict Muslim code of behavior on his daughters. Stefania, who converted to Islam after the couple were wed in 1985, has custody of their 9-year-old daughter.

Italian newspapers described the father, Abdul, as a wealthy 52-year-old lawyer and a devout Muslim.

Last week, Erica's Italian grandmother wrote a letter to Premier Massimo D'Alema asking him to "help end our nightmare."

Franco Danieli, an undersecretary for foreign affairs, traveled to Kuwait during the weekend, saying he hoped to resolve the matter out of court and avoid prolonged custody litigation.

"It is a very difficult case because of conflicting Italian, Kuwaiti and Egyptian law," Danieli said Monday after meeting with Kuwait's foreign minister.

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