Villagers celebrating the return of a young woman 18 years after she disappeared into the jungle are planning to hunt the “wild man” who may have kidnapped and held her captive.

The naked and long-haired man was spotted, apparently armed with a sword, along with the woman as they tried to steal food in a remote province in northeast Cambodia.

The villagers chased them both, catching her, but reported that he was able to escape into the trees. They now plan a manhunt for the mysterious figure, and also hope to find the woman’s younger sister who also disappeared 18 years ago, it emerged yesterday.

The young woman — believed to be Ro Cham H’pnhieng — returned last week with scars on her wrist, possibly from being bound with a rope.

It had initially been thought that she may have lived alone in the jungle like an animal. She grunts and shrieks and so far has only been able to say the words for mother, father, and stomach ache.

The man who claims to be her father, Ksor Lou, a village policeman, aged 45, from the Jrai ethnic group, is convinced that the woman is his daughter, miraculously returned, after identifying her from a childhood knife scar on her arm.

She had vanished with Ro Cham Noeung, her younger sister. At the time a search was held but the girls’ father concluded that they must have been eaten by wild beasts.

Ro Cham Chanthy, the younger sister of the two girls, told Cambodia Daily that villagers were afraid of the “wild man." She said: “He had a long sword and villagers could not capture him. He had tattoos and made his eyes very wide, so the villagers were very afraid.”

When the young women vanished the region was covered with dense forest but it has been steadily cut back in recent years for cashew and rubber plantations, leading to speculation that the “wild man’s” home is shrinking and perhaps forcing him to make foraging raids.

The region is one of the most remote in Cambodia, home to minority tribes, and has a long history of legends of people living in the forest, including wild men. The forest also provided shelter to refugees from the Khmer Rouge and the civil war that followed its fall.

The young woman was said to be becoming more responsive to her family yesterday, with whom she is now living, although she has made at least one attempt to escape back to the jungle. “This is my daughter, I am sure of it,” Ro Cham Soy, Ksor’s wife, said.

Since she was captured the young woman has spent much of her time watching DVD movies. Large numbers of well wishers have travelled to see her and left donations but her family had to be vigilant after local police talked of exhibiting her in a cage and charging the curious to see her.

Many villagers believe that she was taken as a sacrifice by the jungle gods who have returned her for their own reasons. Buddhist priests have been called in to cleanse her of evil spirits. District Police Chief Mao San said: “They are praying that the jungle spirit is finished with the girl and will allow her to stay here.”

Ro Cham H’pnhieng may be traumatised as she is described as having “sad eyes”, is said to be afraid of people and refuses to touch rice or porridge, only eating meat or fruit.

Police in the area have responded to the case with bemusement. Mao, the district police chief, told villagers that they could look for the wild man if they wanted to but said there were no plans for a police search of the jungle.

Adhoc, an NGO based in the province, has promised to get psychological help for the woman.

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