Crowds hurl abuse at South African cannibalism suspects

ESTCOURT, South Africa (Reuters) - Police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to break up crowds hurling insults at a group of men accused of cannibalism in a South African farming town.

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More than 500 people gathered outside the magistrates court in eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province on Thursday as the men sat inside, hiding their faces with their hooded tops and their hands.

Authorities originally charged seven men after police said one of them had walked into a police station in August with a human leg and a hand. Police spokeswoman Col. Thembeka Mbele told Reuters on Thursday he had confessed that he was tired of eating human flesh.

The court acquitted three of the men on Thursday on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, saying there was a lack of evidence. The other four were held in custody and the case adjourned until Oct. 27.

“We have not charged them with cannibalism, as no such charge exists as far as I know,” Mbele said.

“No one has seen them eating any of the human parts they had in their possession but we are still investigating,” she added.

Officers were also investigating the suspects for the offence of possessing human remains, Mbele said.

Police blocked streets outside the court in the town of Estcourt, about 160 km (100 miles) north of Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal’s biggest city.

They fired the teargas and grenades to keep the crowds at bay as security officers drove all seven men back to jail - the three acquitted man were released later.

Members of the crowd shouted back at officers. “Where were you when they were eating people?” said one.

Some protesters told local media they feared missing loved ones may have been eaten.

Others have linked the deaths with witchcraft, referring to traditional medicines that can be made from a range of ingredients including animal or human body parts.

Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Andrew Heavens