KINSHASA Heavy fighting broke out between two factions of Congo's M23 rebels near the eastern town of Goma on Thursday after one side said it sent men to arrest a leader of the other who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The M23 military commander said earlier that the M23 political coordinator Jean-Marie Runiga had been sacked, underlining infighting likely to undermine regional efforts to end two decades of conflict in central Africa.
The M23 rebellion is the latest uprising in Democratic Republic of Congo's mineral rich eastern borderlands. Last year the group inflicted a series of defeats on government forces, culminating in the brief seizure of the major town of Goma.
The emerging power struggle within rebel ranks will further damage efforts to resuscitate peace talks hosted by Uganda and may spur the Kinshasa government to push for a military solution to recurring rebellions in the east.
A Reuters witness in Goma said heavy weapons fire could be heard coming from the direction of rebel positions around Kibumba, some 25 km (14 miles) north of Goma.
"They attacked us so we reacted," said Colonel Seraphin Mirindi, spokesman for the M23 rebel faction loyal to Runiga.
Eight people were killed in clashes between M23 factions earlier this week.
In an earlier statement, the M23 military command said Runiga was ousted for stealing money and backing the rebel faction loyal to Bosco Ntaganda, a fighter wanted by the ICC on charges of killing civilians during a previous uprising.
The statement, signed by military commander Sultani Makenga, said Makenga would become the group's interim leader.
Runiga was unavailable for comment. He told Reuters on Wednesday there were no problems between himself and Makenga.
MOVE TO ARREST ICC SUSPECT
M23 spokesman and Makenga loyalist Colonel Vianney Kazarama said fighters had been dispatched to arrest Ntaganda, believed to be just 20 km (15 miles) north of Goma, on Thursday.
Mirindi, a pro-Ntaganda member of the group, warned: "We have the right to defend ourselves."
U.N. experts say Ntaganda has played a major command role within M23. This has been denied by the rebels.
"We'll see who emerges from this the winner," Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group think tank, said of the power struggle.
"I wouldn't say there's a good guy and a bad guy, but there's one who is more manageable, and the other who is wanted by the ICC. It's another argument for Kinshasa to perhaps go for the military option."
Goma's seizure in November embarrassed Congo's government and U.N. peacekeepers deployed to support Kinshasa's forces.
U.N. experts accused neighboring Rwanda of backing the rebels. Kigali, which has repeatedly intervened in chaotic Congo's conflicts since Rwandan Hutu rebels sought refuge in the lawless east after the 1994 genocide, denied the charge.
Donors slashed millions of dollars in aid to Rwanda as a result. But there has been only slow progress since towards deploying a 4,000-strong international force to hunt down an array of rebel groups still operating in Congo.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled last year's violence, the latest in series of Tutsi-led rebellions whose roots can be traced to the aftermath of Rwanda's genocide and a cross-border web of ethnic, business and political interests.
African leaders signed a U.N.-mediated deal on Sunday paving the way for the deployment of military brigades.
But, having seen numerous other initiatives fail, there is skepticism whether the deal can remove the patchwork of rebel groups and pro-government militias that roam the east.
"The only situation that will make the government happy is the disappearance of politico-military movements like M23," said Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende.
(Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)