By John Kanyunyu
GOMA, Congo, Jan 6 (Reuters) - A split emerged on Tuesday in Congo's eastern Tutsi rebellion after the movement's top military commander openly challenged founder General Laurent Nkunda in an apparent power struggle.
Senior military and political representatives of the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rejected an announcement by its military chief of staff, General Bosco Ntaganda, that he had deposed Nkunda as the group's leader.
Signs of a split emerged as the Tutsi rebel movement, whose attacks in east Democratic Republic of Congo in recent months have displaced a quarter of a million civilians, was preparing to resume peace talks this week with Congo's government.
In a statement to the BBC late on Monday, a spokesman for Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, said the CNDP's military commanders had decided to oust Nkunda because of his "bad governance".
This was quickly denied by other CNDP spokesmen.
"General Bosco Ntaganda does not have the authority to depose the chairman Laurent Nkunda. The CNDP remains one movement and one army," Col. Sultani Makenga, the group's military second in command, told Reuters. He said he did not know why Ntaganda had made the announcement.
Attempts to contact Ntaganda, known as "the Terminator" and popular among the rebel rank and file, were unsuccessful.
After launching a renewed offensive in late August, Nkunda's battle-hardened rebels routed President Joseph Kabila's army and captured large swathes of Congo's eastern North Kivu province before declaring a unilateral ceasefire in late October.
The fighting triggered a fresh humanitarian emergency in the border province, where conflict between rival rebels, militias and the government army has raged on despite a formal end to a wider 1998-2003 war in the former Belgian colony.
United Nations officials and human rights campaigners said the CNDP leadership may have planned to discipline Ntaganda over the massacre of around 150 civilians in the North Kivu town of Kiwanja, shortly after it was seized by the rebels in November.
Up to now, the CNDP has denied its fighters slaughtered civilians, blaming rival pro-government Mai-Mai militiamen.
U.N. PEACEKEEPERS ON ALERT
Officials from Congo's 17,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force (MONUC) said they were monitoring the situation closely in case of fighting within the CNDP.
"To the extent these events threaten to aggravate the situation on the ground, we are very concerned," said Kevin Kennedy, a MONUC spokesman.
Talks between the CNDP rebels and government representatives are due to restart on Wednesday in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, under U.N. and African Union mediation.
CNDP political spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said Ntaganda's announcement had no impact on the group's leadership structure, and negotiators still planned to attend the talks in Kenya.
"If an officer has demands, he must address them to the movement itself and not the media," he said. "Our disciplinary body is being activated to deal with this situation."
A spokesman for Congo's government said its negotiators were also planning to go ahead with the talks on Wednesday.
In April last year, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Ntaganda, accusing him of recruiting children under 15 to fight in a bloody ethnic-based conflict in northeast Ituri district.
Ntaganda is a former associate of Ituri militia leader Thomas Lubanga, who is in ICC custody in The Hague ahead of his own trial on charges of recruiting child soldiers.
Ntaganda returned to his native North Kivu in 2006, where he joined the CNDP led by Nkunda, who says his rebels seek to defend Congo's Tutsi minority against persecution by the government and by Rwandan Hutu militiamen in the east.
Nkunda has so far refused to hand over Ntaganda to Congolese or international authorities, demanding that the ICC first share evidence with the CNDP proving his guilt of war crimes. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/) (Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier in Kinshasa; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)