NAIROBI, KENYA — A United Nations team is investigating reports that Congolese rebel troops have killed and eaten Pygmies in northeastern Congo.

"The UN is taking these accusations very seriously," said Manodje Mounoubai of the UN mission in Congo. Another agency source described the cannibalism charges as credible.

If the Pygmy hunters return empty-handed, rebel troops kill and eat them.

The two rebel factions often hire Pygmies to hunt food for them in the forests as they fight to oust the rival rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation from mineral-rich areas of Ituri province, a UN official said.

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

The six-person United Nations team has been in the province for the past week, looking for proof that the rebel Congolese Liberation Movement and its allied group killed and ate Pygmies in tropical forests.

Pygmies, not all of whom are below average height, are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Central Africa. An estimated 600,000 live in Congo.

The African-based Program for Aid to Pygmies said more is done to fight animal extinction: "It is unacceptable that the international community focuses on protecting endangered animals like the okapi, the mountain gorilla and the rhinoceros and pays no attention to the fate of human beings."