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Former Congolese Rebel Group Seeks to Refute Cannibalism Allegations  - 2004-09-23

The Congo Liberation Movement, a former rebel group now in Congo's government, has taken an unusual approach to refute allegations that the rebels practiced cannibalism during Congo's bitter civil war.

Rights groups and the U.N. mission in Congo have accused the Congo Liberation Movement, a former rebel force that is now part of Congo's transitional government, of a series of crimes, including cannibalism. The Security Council held Jean Pierre Bemba, the leader of the group and now one of Congo's vice presidents, personally responsible.

But at a news conference Thursday, the party, known as the MLC, said people trying to undermine it had manipulated the truth, persuading members of Congo's pygmy population to testify that their relatives had been killed and eaten by Mr. Bemba's men during Congo's war.

At the news conference, the party presented a group of people from the pygmy population, four of whom the rebels were accused of having eaten, to prove that they were alive and well. One of the relatives of the four told the news conference he had previously made false accusations against the MLC. The party demanded that the United Nations reopen investigations into the cannibalism charges.

Political analysts say Mr. Bemba is trying to rebuild his tarnished image ahead of elections scheduled for June by distracting attention from an array of charges that have been leveled against him and his men.

The U.N. mission said Thursday it had carried out preliminary investigations, but it would be up to the national and international courts to take the matter further.

Congo's judicial system is in tatters after years of war.

But there is hope that Congo's war criminals will be brought to justice, as the International Criminal Court, which is based in the Hague, has already begun investigations into crimes committed in Congo since the first of July 2002.

Congo is struggling to recover from a five-year war that sucked in six neighboring countries, and killed three million people, mostly from hunger and disease.

Much of the fighting has ended, but deep divisions remain between the former foes, and they are expected to increase as elections approach.