Allegations of cannibalism once again circulated in troubled northeastern Congo, with terrified witnesses describing the mutilation and eating of the dead during more than a week of tribal fighting that killed scores and forced thousands to flee.
Church leaders and residents in Bunia, the capital of the Ituri district, said Monday that Lendu tribal fighters killed civilians and combatants, cutting open their chests and ripping out hearts, livers and lungs, which they ate while they were still warm.
Superstitious beliefs, inexplicable hatred and a desire to settle old scores were the driving forces behind the acts of cannibalism, said Father Joseph Deneckere, a Belgian priest who has lived in Congo since 1970.
``Some of the victims had their sexual organs missing after the tribal fighters cut them off to use in their charms,'' Deneckere said.
Fighting in Bunia subsided Friday but the town remained tense and frightened residents said they were terrified at the thought of it flaring up again.
``The sight of a corpse with a missing liver and heart is horrific, especially when you know that those parts were eaten by fellow human beings and that the same could happen to you,'' said Acquitte Kisembo, a 28-year-old medical student.
He said he saw several bodies with missing parts.
The UN is taking the allegations seriously and plans to investigate the reports of cannibalism, said Amos Namanga Ngongi, head of the UN mission in Congo.
The reports ``cannot be so persistent and false,'' he told reporters in Bunia. ``There cannot be so much talk of such things if it is false.''
Reports of cannibalism are not new to Ituri.
On Jan. 15, UN investigators confirmed that rebels of the Congolese Liberation Movement and the allied Congolese Rally for Democracy-National had carried out cannibalism, rape, torture and killing in the province late last year.
Similar reports emerged after an April 3 massacre of up to 1,000 people in Drodro, 32km northeast of Bunia, and 14 surrounding villages, UN officials said.
The fighting in Bunia between the rival Hema and Lendu tribal factions began nearly two weeks ago after Uganda withdrew its more than 6,000 troops from the town and the surrounding area.
A cease-fire was signed Friday and the United Nations is trying to assemble an international force to augment more than 750 UN soldiers from Uruguay already there.
There is still no accurate tally of the dead, but at least 100 people are thought to have been killed and thousands forced to flee their homes in Bunia after more than a week of fighting between Hema and Lendu gunmen who were battling for control of the town.
Among the dead are two UN military observers.
The bodies of the observers -- one Jordanian, the other Nigerian -- were discovered in Mongbwalu, a gold mining center 70km northwest of Bunia on Sunday where they had been ``savagely killed,'' said Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the UN mission in Congo.
The last contact with the two UN officers, both of whom were unarmed, came last Tuesday, when they described to their colleagues a tense situation in Mongbwalu, with rival Hema and Lendu fighters preparing to battle for control of the town, UN officials have said.
After losing contact with the observers, the UN tried three times to send search and rescue teams into Mongbwalu but failed when Hema and Lendu factions said they could not guarantee the safety of UN personnel.