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Italy welcomes back deported wife of wanted Kazakh banker

ROME (Reuters) - The wife of a Kazakh banker who is wanted for fraud in three countries enjoyed a warm personal greeting from Italy’s foreign minister on Friday when she flew back to Rome only months after being summarily expelled.

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Alma Shalabayeva is the wife of Mukhtar Ablyazov, an adversary of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev who denies charges of embezzling billions of euros from his former bank.

Kazakhstan wants the return of Ablyazov from France, where he is currently being held. The saga took a new twist in May when Shalabayeva and her daughter Alua, who had been living in Italy, were held in a lightning police operation and days later put on a private plane to Kazakhstan, where they were confined to the city of Almaty.

The case created an uproar in Italy, where opposition politicians and the press accused the government of disregarding normal judicial and diplomatic procedures to please Kazakhstan, a major oil producer.

Since the furor, the Italian government has gone to some lengths to support Shalabayeva, urging the Kazakh government to release her and offering her a VIP welcome on arrival in Rome.

She and her three children were received by Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, and an official photograph showed the minister with her arm around Shalabayeva’s waist and her hand laid affectionately on Alua’s head.

“It was a pleasure for me to be able to share with Mrs. Shalabayeva and her children their joy at being here in Rome again,” Bonino said in a statement.

Shalabayeva’s plans were not known, but a lawyer representing her children said that by letting her out of the country, the Kazakh authorities were using her as a pawn in their efforts to win Ablyazov’s extradition.

“Her permission is temporary permission to come to Italy right now,” lawyer Peter Sahlas told reporters.

He said there was a clear link between her travel permit and her husband’s case: “It’s that the Kazakhs recognize right now that they cannot try to obtain the extradition of Ablyazov while they are holding hostages.”

Ablyazov is at the center of a tortuous legal battle with BTA, the bank he once controlled and which is now majority owned by the state of Kazakhstan.

He was arrested in France in July after 18 months as a fugitive and remains in custody facing possible extradition. Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have laid charges against him.

He denies accusations he embezzled up to $6 billion from his former bank, saying they are politically motivated.

Earlier this year, a British judge said Ablyazov instigated a massive fraud against BTA, which has so far won court approval to seize around $3.7 billion of his assets.

Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Trevelyan