Activists from Pygmy communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo want the United Nations to set up a tribunal to try government and rebel fighters accused of slaughtering and eating Pygmies during fighting in the north-east of the country.
Army, rebel and tribal fighters have been pursuing them in forests, killing and eating them, the activists said on Wednesday. Some fighters believed that eating their flesh would give them magic power, the activists said, adding that there had been reports of markets for the flesh.
"In living memory, we have seen cruelty, massacres, genocide, but we have never seen human beings hunted and eaten literally as though they were game animals, as has recently happened," said Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of the Mbuti Pygmies.
Mr Makelo, a delegate to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which is meeting at UN headquarters in New York, said: "Pygmies are being pursued in the forests ... People have been eaten."
About 600,000 Pygmies are believed to live in the country. Africa's third-largest country is emerging from four and a half years of civil war, fuelled in large part by the desire of the Congolese and their neighbours to control resources and territory. The Pygmies, who are among the original inhabitants of the republic (formerly Zaire), live off game hunting.
Earlier this year, human rights activists and UN investigators confirmed that tribal fighters and members of one rebel group killed, cooked and ate at least a dozen Pygmies and an undetermined number of other tribespeople during fighting with rival insurgents.
Njuma Ekundanayo, an expert member of the Permanent Forum, said attacks against Pygmies "are not only coming from the [Congolese] army but also from other groups ... We don't understand why the military practices cannibalism against the Pygmies," she said.
The fighters also rape and sexually assault Pygmy women, and sexually transmitted diseases are spreading in Pygmy communities, the activists said. Addressing the forum on Tuesday, Mr Makelo told the body to ask the UN Security Council, the UN Committee on Human Rights and other groups to recognise cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. He also asked the UN to set up an international tribunal to try those accused of such crimes.
Ms Ekundanayo said there were no figures available on the assaults. "Since the war, the situation of the Pygmies has grown more grave," she said.
Fred Eckhard, a UN spokesman, said it was "taking longer than we had hoped" for the international community to piece together an emergency force.
The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, asked France last week to lead an emergency force to Ituri province, separate from the UN force already in the country to monitor a 1999 cease-fire. A team of French officers is in the region to assess the mission, which the French Defence Ministry has said would be "very complex". Britain has also signalled a willingness to contribute soldiers.
The Hema and Lendu tribes have been fighting each other for control of the region's rich mineral deposits, vast forests and fertile land. The latest clashes erupted on 7 May after neighbouring Uganda claimed it had pulled out its 6,000 soldiers around Bunia, leaving a security vacuum. Hundreds of people have been killed.
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