Page last updated at 15:29 GMT, Thursday, 11 June 2009 16:29 UK

Ban on Chernobyl children lifted

Children from Belarus visiting the UK
About 47 UK charities are registered to help children on recuperative trips

Children affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster have resumed respite trips to the UK after the resolution of a long diplomatic row with Belarus.

The eight-month ban was lifted in May following talks between the two countries, the Home Office has said.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko stopped all foreign trips after a 16-year-old girl who visited California refused to return home.

Every year hundreds of children around Chernobyl are diagnosed with cancer.

'Absolutely elated'

UK Borders and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said: "We're pleased we have been able to reach an agreement with Belarus that allows these visits to resume, and remain in place for at least the next five years.

"This agreement will enable UK charities to continue their worthwhile work, and for many more children to visit the UK for a temporary period of rest and recuperation."

Children in the Chernobyl area are still contracting leukaemia, bone and thyroid cancer as a result of the 1986 disaster.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko
Charities worked with diplomats to urge Mr Lukashenko to lift the ban

UK charity Friends of Chernobyl's Children (FCC) said it had been "absolutely elated" by the announcement the ban was lifted.

Director Olwyn Keogh, 63, said children contract the cancers by eating food grown in plutonium-contaminated soil.

Her charity was the first to get children out of Belarus after the agreement came into force on 22 May, she said, and it is currently hosting 300 children in the UK.

She told the BBC: "When we were given the go-ahead I couldn't believe it, I thought there would be another problem. I was absolutely elated.

"We've struggled since last August, it's been a dreadful winter trying to negotiate. When things get into the hands of lawyers and politicians things get very difficult."

'Vital recuperation'

Several charities who run the visits to the UK had been working with diplomats behind the scenes to urge Mr Lukashenko to think again.

The new deal, which includes certain written guarantees, allowed the immediate resumption of visits by Belarusian children aged under 14.

The diplomatic incident was triggered when a 16-year-old girl from Belarus visited the US on a regular recuperation trip.

The visit, organised by a US charity, ended with the girl refusing to return to her grandparents in Belarus.

President Lukashenko banned visits to all countries involved in the scheme including the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the United States, Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland.

Ms Keogh said the work of her charity was vital to give children recuperation, boost their immune systems and detoxify their systems.

Many of the children she helps have different forms of leukaemia and bone and brain diseases.

She said contamination of the soil would last for 24,000 years, affecting people for hundreds of years.

About 47 UK charities are registered to help children on recuperative trips.

The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, when one of four reactors at the station exploded, was the worst accident in the history of nuclear power.

Disputes continue about how many will eventually die as a result of contamination.

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