A diplomatic incident has been sparked by fictitious claims that China has been exporting canned human meat for consumption in Africa.

Zambia's government has apologised to China and launched an investigation after the rumour appeared in a local tabloid newspaper.

The rumour has been fuelled by a hoax post on Facebook that has been shared more than 26,000 times.

Ghanaian woman Barbara Akosua Aboagye wrote in the Facebook post: "Chinese people have started producing corned beef with their dead bodies and sending them to Africa. Please stay away from corned beef irrespective of brand, most especially in Africa and from Afro-Asian grocery shops."

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China condemned the "malicious" rumours in a statement published by state-run news agency Xinhua.

Yang Youming, China's ambassador to Zambia, said it was unfortunate people were trying to destroy the relationship between the two countries.

"Today a local tabloid newspaper is openly spreading a rumour, claiming that the Chinese use human meat to make corned beef and sell it to Africa. This is completely a malicious slandering and vilification which is absolutely unacceptable to us," he said.

"We hereby express our utmost anger and the strongest condemnation over such an act."

Zambian minister Christopher Mulenga told Xinhua his government would investigate.

"The government of Zambia regrets the incident in view of the warm relations that exist between Zambia and China. We shall make sure that relevant government authorities will take up the investigations and give a comprehensive statement."