• Kyodo

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An 8-year-old girl and her 5-year-old sister found dead Sunday in a mountain forest in Okayama Prefecture, 17 days after they disappeared, apparently froze to death and were not spotted in a massive search because their bodies had been covered by snow, police said Monday.

Okayama Prefectural Police suspect Akise Haruna and her younger sister, Rise, froze to death after becoming lost in the forest Jan. 23 less than 2 km from their grandparents’ home.

Three local hunters found their bodies side by side on a wooded slope about 100 meters off a mountain path near the village of Higashiawakura. The girls’ identities were confirmed by their 36-year-old mother, Mariko Haruna, of Saku, Nagano Prefecture.

There were no noticeable external wounds on the bodies and they were wearing the same clothes as when they disappeared, police said.

The bodies were found about 1.5 km southeast, as the crow flies, from their grandparents’ home in the neighboring village of Nishiawakura.

To reach the location from the house requires a 4-km walk on a mountain road. According to the parents, the older girl, who was in the second grade, had previously walked 14 km in a school excursion.

“I wonder how the small girls could walk that path,” said Hideo Oshima, a local resident. “It’s winding and has steep slopes. I do not normally take that route unless I hunt there.”

The girls and their mother came to Nishiawakura on Jan. 17 to attend their grandfather’s funeral two days later, village officials said.

When they disappeared, hundreds of police officers, firefighters, village officials and volunteer workers were mobilized to comb the nearby mountains and forests. The area where the bodies was found had been searched by firefighters Jan. 24 and 26.

Police suspect that at the time of the search, the girls’ bodies had been covered by snow that fell on the evening of the day they disappeared.

Akise’s classmates were planning to bake cookies together once she returned to school, according to Yoichiro Kikuchi, her homeroom teacher.

“(The children) thought that if they believed she was alive, then that hope would become reality,” he said.

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