A United Nations team has been dispatched to northeastern Congo to investigate allegations that Congolese rebels are practicing cannibalism in the war-torn region.
The United Nations mission in Congo says a six-person team has been in the northeastern part of the country for the past week.
The team is looking into widespread reports that two rebel factions, fighting near the Ugandan border area of Ituri Province, are capturing and eating Pygmies who live in nearby tropical forests. The two groups involved are the Ugandan-backed forces of the Congolese Liberation Movement and its ally, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-National.
U.N. officials say they have heard reports that the rebels are forcing their captives to hunt for food and to prospect for minerals. If the Pygmies come back empty-handed, they are killed and eaten.
Forest-dwelling Pygmies are expert hunters who are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Central Africa. In the past five years, about 600,000 Pygmies living in Congo Kinshasa have lost much of their traditional living and hunting grounds to Africa's biggest war.
The program director for Doctors Without Borders in Northeastern Congo, Marie Nowel Rodrigue, says she is aware of the cannibalism reports. She says it is just one more unthinkable atrocity taking place in the mineral-rich Ituri Province. "Some cases have been reported," she said. "This I cannot deny. Some displaced people have been saying it. But it is only part of the problem of a much broader level of violence that has been reached in this region since August."
Aid and human rights groups have raised alarms about a sharp escalation in the number of ethnic clashes and massacres in Eastern Congo, following the departure of thousands of Rwandan and Ugandan troops in July. The troop withdrawals were part of an agreement aimed at ending the five-year-long conflict.
A U.N. panel recently accused Rwanda and Uganda of using proxy militias to fuel more violence and justify a new occupation of eastern Congo. Congo has vast natural resources that the various sides are fighting over.
It is not clear when the U.N. team in Ituri will present its findings, or what kind of measures the United Nations might take if the allegations of cannibalism prove to be true.