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10 Jun, 2009 14:09

Hundreds search for two schoolboys missing in taiga

Hundreds search for two schoolboys missing in taiga

Two children missing in Russia’s northwestern Republic of Komi are feared to have been murdered, but a large-scale search operation continues regardless.

Two boys aged eight – Andrey Meleschuk and Andrey Vasilenko – went for a forest walk with their class last Friday, June 5. A schoolteacher assisting the walk noticed the two boys were missing when doing a head count of the group during the stroll.

Preliminary information says that the boys started playing hide-and seek in the forest and didn’t return. That may be the reason why the teacher gave the alarm only several hours after it became clear that the boys were missing.

Before doing that she took 13 other kids back to school and took several senior schoolchildren who were searching in vain for the boys for three hours.

A large-scale search operation was subsequently launched in the region, with more than 600 people taking part in the process: regional police, emergency ministry units and local hunters who know the territory.

Rescue forces with helicopters have been sent from Arkhangelsk and a plane with a unit of rescuers from Moscow has arrived on the scene.

Search and rescue dog specialists are also in the area, but one of them, Aleksey Karpenko, says the right time for searching has been lost.

“As a specialist I can say that dog teams should have been called firsthand. I’m sure that then the kids would already have been found. And now locals have trampled all footprints and it rained on Saturday night. Dogs cannot pick up the trail after that,” he believes.

According to an information update by Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, the number of people searching for the lost kids has already risen to one thousand people.

All in all, nine groups of people are combing the area, but according to the senior Emergencies Ministry official Valery Dmitriev, it is very hard to work in the local taiga:

“The forest is a hard one, it’s mixed and there’s a lot of windbreak and bogs there,” he says.

Those places where the missing boys could have been have been searched seven or eight times already. Today, soldiers will be clearing an area as far as 15km from the settlement where the boys are from, and police are searching nearby villages.

However, investigative officials fear the boys may have been killed.

“There have been several incidents lately with pedophiles attacking children in Komi, that’s why we mostly work on the angle of murder,” said Nikolay Basmanov, the head of the regional department of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation in an interview with RIA Novosti news agency.

The only thing that has been found so far is a place near a brook where they supposedly stayed for a night, Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper reports, citing the rescuers.

The boys had no food or warm clothes with them. The average daily temperature in the area is about +15 degrees Celsius, but it drops at night.

Yesterday, one of the local mass media outlets said that several psychics have offered their services to the rescuers, Komsomolskaya Pravda reports. All of them unanimously say that the boys are alive and have merely fallen into a pit, adding that the kids can hear the rescuers but cannot answer.

The teacher, assisting the walk, has been accused of negligence. If proven guilty, she could get from 6 to 12 months of corrective labour or a jail term of up to three months.

Investigators say she allegedly hadn’t worked out the plan of the walk beforehand, but her colleagues say the route the group took is well-known to locals and was always considered a safe one, Russia’s Vesti news channel reported.

“People play there and go fishing. This place is like a recreation area for the locals,” said Olga Taybari, deputy master of educational work of the school.

The investigation has a different take on the location – officials are considering the idea that the children could have been attacked by wild animals or could have drowned in the bogs.

The case has been taken under the personal control of the head of Investigative Committee of Russia’s General Prosecutors Office.

Opposites attract

Both the missing boys are called Andrey, and the two became friends at school. Their relatives say the boys are quite different in character – one of them is a quiet child who has many friends in his class. His mother is raising him alone as his father was killed last year.

The other Andrey is full of energy and the son of a hunter. His father took him to the forest quite often and a couple of years ago the boy became something of a “hero” in the village, as he ran away from home and was found 30km from the settlement.

Locals say they don’t believe that he has decided to repeat the experience as he was eagerly awaiting a present he was expecting soon – a laptop.