Mass murder and cannibalism claims emerge in Congo

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Reports of mass murder and cannibalism emerged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) yesterday, as French military officers arrived yesterday to assess the possibility of France deploying peace-keeping troops.

Aid workers said they had found 231 bodies of people killed since 4 May on the streets of Bunia, in the north-east, including women and children, some decapitated, others with their hearts, livers and lungs missing. United Nations officials are already investigating reports of cannibalism and have asked the European Union and Britain to send troops.

Britain is considering the request for peace-keepers, a Foreign Office spokesman said. An EU official said it may send its recently formed rapid reaction force.

The aid workers warned the death toll may rise because they have searched only nine of the town's 12 neighbourhoods.

The Hema and Lendu tribes have been battling for control of Bunia, the capital of resource-rich Ituri province. Aid agency officials in the DRC and neighbouring countries said they were getting fresh reports of cannibalism from the thousands of civilians fleeing to safety from Bunia.

In January, UN officials said they had substantiated reports that ethnic militias were killing Congo bushmen, also known as pygmies, for food. Aid workers said they were being told of ethnic militias feeding on the hearts and livers from bodies of civilians belonging to other ethnic groups. They said reports of such murders were common in the eastern part of the Congo. One added: "Sometimes you don't have to see these atrocities to believe. The misery and fear of the fleeing civilians is enough to make you believe the extent of the atrocities."

Amos Namanga Ngongi, head of the UN mission in Congo, said reports of cannibalism were "too persistent to be entirely without foundation". Child soldiers interviewed by The Independent at a rehabilitation centre in the Congo, said some of them were forced to resort to cannibalism because they were not given food, uniforms or equipment when they are deployed to fight.

The problems in the Congo started in 1998 when then President Joseph Kabila, who had seized power in a bloody war against Mobutu SeSe Seko, himself faced a rebellion supported by Rwanda and Uganda. The anti-Kabila rebellion splintered into factions supported by various countries. At its peak, the Congo conflict sucked in six foreign armies and it was known as "Africa's World War".

Aid workers believe thousands of civilians had been killed in the Congo in the past month though it was difficult to verify exact numbers. The UN force of 700 deployed after the signing of several peace deals failed to halt the violence.