ROME (AP) — A six-year-old boy who was the sole survivor of a cable car crash this year in northern Italy is at the center of a bitter custody battle between his maternal grandparents in Israel and his paternal relatives in Italy, who claim the child was flown without their permission to Israel over the weekend.
Fourteen people, including Eitan Biran’s parents and younger sibling, died when the cable car slammed into a mountainside on May 23 after the cable broke. After the boy was released from a Turin hospital following weeks of treatment for critical injuries, Italian juvenile court officials ruled that the child could live with a paternal aunt near Pavia, in northern Italy. But the aunt, Aya Biran, told reporters on Sunday that the previous day, Eitan’s maternal grandfather took the boy on an agreed-up day visit, then flew him without permission to Israel.
She said the boy has been undergoing both physical therapy and psychotherapy since his hospital release and was due to have follow-up medical visits this week, including one in Turin.
“His bed is empty, his toys and clothes were left behind. His new desk, school backpack, notebooks, pencil case and books were ready” for his first day of class on Monday, she said.
The aunt contended that when the maternal grandfather had come to pick him up for an arranged visit on Saturday morning, it was agreed that the boy would be back by dinner. But after Eitan didn’t return, the aunt filed a police report on Saturday night, Italian news report said.
The maternal grandfather couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. But a sister of Eitan’s late mother denied that the boy was snatched away from Italy.
“We did not abduct Eitan,” Gali Peleg told radio station 103 FM in Israel. ”We will not use that word. What happened is that we brought Eitan home.”
Gali Peleg wouldn’t say exactly where the boy was, only that he had arrived on Saturday. “We are caring for his emotional state and health.”
In Italy, Aya Biran told reporters the boy has Italian citizenship and had been living with his parents since when he was a toddler in Italy before the accident. It wasn’t immediately possible to confirm if the child also had Israeli citizenship but he reportedly had an Israeli passport.
The Italian foreign ministry wasn’t immediately commenting on the case.
The aunt in Israel told the radio station that the boy “screamed from excitement when he saw us. He said, ‘I’m finally in Israel.” The aunt added that “everything we did was only for the good of the boy.”
Pavia prosecutors’ offices were closed on Sunday and investigators couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Italian news reports that they were considering opening an investigation into the case.
“I am certain and full of hope” that Israeli and Italian authorities will work together “to ensure his return home” to Italy, Aya Biran told reporters.
The Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted a paternal uncle, Or Nirko, as saying Saturday that the Pelegs had the boy’s Israeli passport and had failed to give it to the paternal relatives despite an Italian court order that they do so by Aug. 30. Nirko was quoted as saying that the boy’s maternal grandparents had contended that if he stayed in Italy, “Eitan would have grown up without ties to his (Israeli) identity.’’
According to the paternal relatives, the maternal family had challenged in Italian courts the custody arrangement that let Eitan live with Biran, who is a doctor with her own children.
Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.