U.N. investigators have found credible evidence that Congolese rebel troops have killed and eaten pygmies in northeastern Congo, U.N. officials said Wednesday.

During the past week, U.N. human rights investigators have been probing reports of cannibalism in Congo's northeastern Ituri province.

Forces of the rebel Congolese Liberation Movement, or MLC, and its allied Congolese Rally for Democracy-National, RCD-N, are accused of killing and eating pygmies living in dense tropical forests.

"The U.N. is taking these accusations very seriously and has sent a team of six officials to investigate the accusations and other human rights abuses in the region," said Manodje Mounoubai, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo.

Speaking by telephone from the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, Mounoubai said he preferred to wait until the investigators had left the area before providing further information.

However, other U.N. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators have established that the charges are credible.

The two rebel factions often hire Pygmies to hunt food for them in the forests as they concentrate on fighting to oust the rival rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation, or RCD-ML, from mineral-rich areas of Ituri province, a U.N. official familiar with the probe said.

If the expert hunters return empty-handed, rebel troops kill and eat them, the official said.

Sudi Alimasi, an official with the rival RCD-ML, said the group began receiving reports of cannibalism more than a week ago from people displaced by fighting.

"We hear reports of MLC and RCD-N commanders feeding on sexual organs of Pygmies, apparently believing this would give them strength," Alimasi said by telephone from Kinshasa. "We also have reports of Pygmies being forced to feed on cooked remains of their colleagues."

Nearly all foreign troops involved in the war in Congo that broke out in August 1998 have withdrawn, but fighting has intensified among the country's main rebel factions, splinter groups and tribal fighters after the pullout in the east.