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Last Updated: Friday, 5 January 2007, 13:57 GMT
Idyllic village 'key to murder'
Mystery surrounds how traveller Stephen Bennett came to be found hanging from a tree in an Indian jungle.

The BBC's Karishma Vaswani travelled to the town of Roha where police have launched a major murder inquiry.

Just over 100km by train from Mumbai, Roha is a tiny non-descript town, stuck in the middle of the popular Mumbai to Goa railway route.

Malsai village leader Gajanan Malusari
We have never had any Stephen Bennett here before, in fact, no foreigners have ever come to our town
Gajanan Malusari
Village elder

There is not much in this quiet, rural area that would draw tourists.

But now it is at the centre of a major murder investigation.

This is where 40-year-old Stephen Bennett, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, is believed to have spent his last days.

But what brought him to this obscure part of the Indian countryside?

Foreigners here are few and far between.

And why did he spend three days here before his dead body was found last month hanging from a tree in jungle nearby?

Police believe he was beaten and throttled before being hanged. In their control room, frenetic phone calls from officials and journalists are a rude awakening to this usually sleepy town.

The Inspector General in charge of the area, Satyapal Singh, said investigations were ongoing.

He added: "We have arrested and charged four men with the murder of Stephen Bennett and conspiracy to destroy evidence. Two men are still on the run, but we are doing our best to arrest them and bring them into custody."

I drove with police to the area where Mr Bennett was last seen alive and they pointed out to us the different routes he could have taken to end up here.

Stephen Bennett
Father-of-two Stephen Bennett

The village of Malsai is a remote, lonely and rather inaccessible part of the countryside. Hardly the type of trail that tourists or holiday makers would be likely to explore.

When we arrived in the village, we were greeted by an eerie tension.

Indian police tell us that this is where Mr Bennett was murdered. The small community has been shocked by what has allegedly happened in its midst.

Many people turned away, reluctant to speak to us, frightened by the flurry of activity in their once peaceful village.

The crime scene is just a few hundred metres away from the village, and from the hill, you can actually see the path that leads to the forest where Mr Bennett's body was found.

Thumb impression

What actually happened to him is still a mystery. At the heart of this mystery is a 25-year-old local woman, Nirmala Mene, who police said Mr Bennett scared, before he was killed.

She now says she has never met him.

"I was sleeping in my house with my child on the day the police claim Stephen Bennett met me," she told BBC News.

"I've never seen him or met him before in my life. I know nothing about his murder or this investigation.

"The police came here with a document, asking me for my thumb impression. Now they say I have given them my statement."

Map showing Mumbai, Roha and Pune

Villagers gathered around and backed up her version of events.

The village leader Gajanan Malusari said: "We have never had any Stephen Bennett here before - in fact, no foreigners have ever come to our small town.

"The police are looking for scapegoats and they found them in our village."

But Indian officials have denied this.

"That is completely untrue," said Inspector General Singh.

"We have an eye witness who tells us that he saw Stephen Bennett in the village entering a house."

Here in Malsai, local police are keen to wrap up these investigations.

They are urging foreign tourists not to be wary of visiting the Roha area, stressing that it is safe for visitors and that the violent incident was a one off.

As village women wash their clothes on the banks of the river, it would seem the facade of serenity here is still intact.

But it is this apparently idyllic Indian village that holds the key to Mr Bennett's unsolved murder.

Men charged with Briton's murder
04 Jan 07 |  Gloucestershire
Dead traveller 'spoke of fears'
03 Jan 07 |  Gloucestershire
Briton's mystery movements probed
03 Jan 07 |  Gloucestershire
Parents pay tribute to hanged son
03 Jan 07 |  Gloucestershire

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