Briton missing on the hikers’ trail of death

As the hunt goes on for a 27-year-old British backpacker lost in Nepal, at least 12 similar cases remain unsolved.

THE disappearance of a 27-year-old British backpacker in Nepal has renewed fears that foreign trekkers are being targeted by criminals in some of the country’s most isolated areas.

Zisimos Souflas, a graduate of St Andrews University, went missing from the small town of Namche Bazaar, the starting point for many travellers hiking to Everest base camp.

According to the owner of the Hotel Tibet, where he stayed, Souflas left early on the morning of April 24 and said he would return in a few days to collect his belongings. He left behind a digital camera, mobile phone, credit cards, driving licence and diary.

He had told his family that he would be out of contact for a while because of poor communications, but they raised the alarm when he failed to arrive as expected at Manchester airport on May 15.

There have been at least a dozen similar unsolved cases in Nepal’s national parks in the past 10 years.

Two other British hikers have vanished without trace in the same region. Gareth Koch, then 24, disappeared in 2004, while Julian Wynne, 33, failed to return to base camp from a hiking trip in December 2008.

Alex Ratnasothy, 24, an Irishman, disappeared after being robbed on the way to Namche Bazaar in 2003, while Kristina Kovacevic, a 41- year-old German, was found dead in a nearby ravine in 2006. Her family suspect that she was murdered. This February Igor Dashkin, a Russian tourist, vanished.

Fearing for his safety, Souflas’s family hired a team of sherpas, led by Chakra Karki, a local guide, to search all the trails he could have taken. The paths are known to be relatively easy, well marked and busy with tourists.

The weather was also reported to be good. “March, April and May are the peak season, but nobody had seen him. That’s very suspicious. There are hundreds of tourists up there,” said Karki.

A close friend of Souflas’s, who asked not to be named, said he suspected foul play. “I clearly sense that something has gone wrong in Namche Bazaar,” he said.

Local police are still investigating the case, including a confusion over whether a call was made from Souflas’s phone to a friend on April 27. It is known that he withdrew 35,000 Nepalese rupees (£250) in Kathmandu before setting out.

Inspector Shrikanth Adhikari said he had not ruled out murder, but he insisted it was more likely that Souflas had had an accident. He “could have fallen down a cliff”, he said.

Rachael Crowter, whose brother Julian disappeared in 2008, said her family felt let down by the police. She also suspects her brother may have been attacked.

“It just seems to be too much of a coincidence that all these people have disappeared, never to be found again,” she said. “I think the authorities are doing their best to sweep these cases under the carpet to protect their tourism industry.”

Binod Singh, deputy inspector general of the Nepal police, dismissed the risks faced by tourists. “There have been no tourists kidnapped or killed for money for the past 10 to 15 years,” he said.

He spoke just days after the decomposed body of Debbie Maveau, a Belgian tourist, was found in the Langtang national park, north of the capital. She had been decapitated, and her death is being treated as murder.

Several other tourists have run into peril in the Langtang area, including Aubrey Sacco, a 23-year-old American, who vanished while hiking in 2010 and two women who were attacked and seriously injured in the same year.

In December another young American, Lena Sessions, narrowly escaped a masked man with an 18in knife, who told her: “Either I [sexually assault] you or I kill you.”

Sessions said she had not known about the other attacks. “I might have made some different decisions had I known,” she told USA Today.

In 2005, the suspicious deaths of two women — one French and the other German — in the Shivapuri national park near Kathmandu prompted speculation that killers were preying on lone foreign hikers.

Ang Tshering Sherpa, a local tour guide, said this could be the case in the Langtang area. He said the Everest region was traditionally very safe, but also changing due to the migration of seasonal workers.

“I think the law should be changed,” he said. “In future we must put up signs to warn people.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office “strongly recommends” that travellers do not go trekking alone and mentions instances of rape and robbery, but it does not say tourists have gone missing.

The Souflas family said their son’s disappearance was completely out of character. Last week they appealed for more information.

“There must be people who have had contact with Zis. We would particularly like to appeal to trekkers who were in that area in April, and are now back home, to see if they can remember him,” they said.

Souflas had told friends he was having the adventure of a lifetime in Nepal. “The people here are so poor but they are always smiling,” he wrote on a postcard found in his bag.

He had spent time living with a family in Kathmandu. They were so fond of him that they gave him a local name — Jeevan, the Nepali word for “life”.

Anyone with information about Zis please contact Andrew Dawson on [email protected] or use the non-emergency police line 101, citing case number KX-2863-2012

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