Olympic medallist Larysa Moskalenko tells Italian police she thought alleged abduction ring was doing nothing wrong in seizing children taken overseas by divorced parents
A former Olympic athlete at the centre of an alleged ring that kidnapped children embroiled in international custody battles has compared their daring operations to scenes from a James Bond film.
Larysa Moskalenko, a glamorous Ukrainian who won a bronze medal in sailing at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, was one of four people arrested by police in Palermo, where she now runs a luxury boat rental business.
At a pre-trial hearing at Palermo’s Pagliarelli prison, Ms Moskalenko, 50, admitted to providing speed boats, dinghies and skippers for her alleged accomplices, former special forces soldiers who used weapons and pepper spray to kidnap children from one estranged or divorced parent to reunite them with the other.
“I thought it was all legal, in fact I thought it was a humanitarian action,” a tearful Ms Moskalenko told judge Nicola Aiello. “I had seen it many times in James Bond films.”
Police said high-powered speedboats hired out by Ms Moskalenko were used to recover children from countries in North Africa and bring them to Italy, from where they were then reunited with their parents in other European countries for tens of thousands of pounds.
Ms Moskalenko said she was so convinced the work was legitimate she introduced herself to Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando and other officials.
The former athlete was arrested in the Sicilian capital on Thursday with two boat captains, Antonio Barazza and Sebastiano Calabrese and another local man, Luigi Cannistraro, all of whom are due to testify before the judge on Monday.
An arrest warrant was also issued for Martin Waage, the chief executive officer of ABP World Group, the Norwegian security firm which specialises in what it calls “parental child abduction cases”.
The firm claims that it only retrieves children who have been taken away by a parent in defiance of court orders. But Italian police contend that they were in fact kidnapping children from their rightful custodian.
The group is alleged to have carried out its first operation in October last year when a child was abducted in Tunisia, and taken to Norway via Sicily.
A second operation in November was foiled by police after they tapped the phone calls of Ms Moskalenko’s sailing venture in Palermo.
“They kidnapped a child and we brought him back with my boats, do you understand?... Brought back, so you could say I am involved,” Ms Moskalenko told a friend during one call intercepted by police.
Italian police have also issued arrest warrants for Per Ake Helgesson, reportedly a former member of the French Foreign Legion, and Daniel Bakke, two Swedish employees of ABP World Group who have been in prison in Tunisia since the foiled plot last year.