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Perils of Athina

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SHE RIDES THE PONY THAT WAS A gift from her father, skates through the streets of her tiny Swiss village and is seen chattering with girlfriends and brushing the hair from her soulful eyes with the flip of a slender wrist. But that is where the similarities between 12-year-old Athina Onassis and the other girls of Lussy-sur-Morges end. They, after all, do not stand to inherit roughly $3 billion when they turn 18. And they, unlike Athina, were not reported two weeks ago to have been the alleged target of a bizarre, commando-style kidnapping plot.

According to sketchy reports that surfaced in the European press this month, six Israeli former military and police investigators, posing as a team of environmental activists, were planning to abduct Athina and her father, Thierry Roussel, during a family skiing vacation in St. Moritz in February. Roussel, 44, heir to a French pharmaceutical fortune and the fourth husband of Athina’s late mother, Christina Onassis, learned about the alleged plot—which was never carried out—during the trip, when news of it was leaked to a member of his security staff. The story took another twist in May, when an Israeli ex-journalist, claiming to know details of the incident, tried to extort $50,000 from Roussel in exchange for information.

On Nov. 6, following revelations in Paris Match, Israeli officials added to the mystery by denying there had ever been a plot. “There was no evidence of criminal activity, no intention of kidnapping or anything else,” says police spokesman Uzi Sandouri. “As far as we’re concerned, the case is closed.” But this month following an investigation, Swiss judge Jacques Delieutraz issued international arrest warrants naming seven Israelis—including two retired police officers—for their involvement in the alleged plot. “I do not accept the Israeli police position,” Delieutraz told PEOPLE, referring to the official denial. “They were not as forthcoming as we would have liked.”

It could be, as the Israelis insist, that the supposed plot is only the latest skirmish in a bitter nine-year battle that has pitted Roussel against the four Greeks who serve with him on a board of trustees established by Onassis in 1988 to manage her daughter’s inheritance.

In August 1996, Roussel filed a suit (later dismissed) in Greece accusing the other trustees of mismanaging the shipping business that feeds the Onassis fortune. He now believes, like the Israelis, that the alleged kidnapping plot may have been merely an attempt at surveillance by the trustees. Roussel “has heard the reports,” says a friend, high-profile publicist Richard Pollman, whose roster of Hollywood clients includes Heidi Fleiss and Mickey Rourke. “He wants to know who is responsible.”

According to Stelio Papadimitriou, chief trustee of Athina’s estate, Roussel has reportedly received $84 million of Athina’s money—for her education, security and living expenses—and now wants total control of her fortune. “Christina asked us to protect [Athina] from Roussel,” Papadimitriou has said, “and that is what we intend to do.”

The trustees, who have filed a countersuit in Switzerland, charge that Roussel, who divorced Christina a year before her death from pulmonary edema in 1988, is squandering Athina’s fortune. They also say that though Roussel pledged to raise Athina with knowledge of her Greek heritage, she cannot speak the language and has spent less than three weeks on the Greek island of Skorpios that was once her mother’s vacation home.

Meanwhile, police in Milan last week announced the arrest of one of the kid-nap-plot suspects, Ronen Balulu, head of an Italian industrial-security firm. Swiss authorities are expected to apply for his extradition. Apparently oblivious to the intrigue swirling around her, Athina, who lives with Roussel, his wife, Gaby Landhage, mid-40s, and their three children, Erik, 12, Sandrine, 10, and Johanna, 6, continues to divide her time among the family’s homes—a Renaissance-style château south of Paris, a sprawling villa on the island of Ibiza and the Roussels’ main residence in Lussy-sur-Morges.

Villagers there say that there has been at least one concession to news of the kidnap plot. At the family home, surrounded by fields and shielded by pines, security spotlights can now be seen burning brightly throughout the night, keeping both the curious and the encroaching darkness at bay.


ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles, PETER MIKELBANK in Paris, ABE RABINOVICH in Jerusalem, ELLEN WALLACE in Switzerland and TOULA VLAHOU in Athens