Investigators have opened a murder case after two fishermen were rescued following three months lost in a remote Far East forest of Russia amid fears the pair could have eaten a companion to stay alive, officials said on Wednesday.
Four men disappeared in August on a river-fishing expedition to the vast Yakutia region in the Russian Far East, one of the most remote and inhospitable places in the world.
Rescuers finally found two of the men this month by the Sutam River some 250 kilometres (155 miles) from the nearest town of Neryungri in the south of Yakutia but without two companions.
The men, both inhabitants of the Russian Far East, claimed that their group had split up and said the others were likely still alive as they were used to living in the open.
But a murder probe was opened after a team of top investigators from the regional capital Yakutsk found fragments of a human corpse close to the place where the pair was found.
“Investigators carried out an examination of two areas. Fragments of a human corpse with signs of a violent death were discovered and removed,” the Yakutia branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.
“A criminal case into suspected murder has been opened.”
Russia has no article in the criminal code for cannibalism but the state RIA Novosti news agency said that the initial theory was that the two men had eaten one companion. It was not clear what happened to the fourth man.
"What we found were chopped human bones, fragments of a skull and a bloodstained chunk of ice," an investigator, who was not named, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid daily.
"It's clear that this person did not die of his own accord," said the investigator.
The two men missing were from the region of Saratov in central Russia. The human remains have yet to be identified.
The wife of one of the missing men from Saratov, named as Andrei Kurochkin, said she had not yet given up hope.
"The police said that they had found human remains. But I believe that Andrei is alive. I am hoping other hunters have found him and he is not alone," Olga Kurochkina told the newspaper.
The rescued pair, reportedly aged 37 and 35, have denied any wrongdoing and said they had managed to survive as the winter set in a wooden hut by foraging for wild foods.
But the lifenews.ru website said they had fled the hospital where they were being treated for severe frostbite and were now on the run from investigators.
The Yakutia investigators said that DNA and forensic testing has been ordered and they are working urgently to uncover what happened.
Investigators want to take them for questioning to Yakutsk which lies some 600 kilometres (370 miles) to the north.
A policeman who was involved in the initial rescue by aircraft told Komsomolskaya Pravda that the two men initially did not arouse suspicion.
"But the whole night they just drank tea and ate pies and heated up corned beef. There was the impression there was something wrong with them," the policeman said.
"But we put this down to terrible stress as they had had to suffer for a long time," he added.
Yakutia, also known as the Sakha Republic after its indigenous Turkic inhabitants, is a vast region only slightly smaller than India and best known as the coldest inhabited location on earth.