* President says minister-turned-rebel leader dead
* Opposition, rights groups want investigation
By Paul-Marin Ngoupana
BANGUI, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Central African Republic’s President Francois Bozize has confirmed the death of a rebel leader but dismissed criticism from rights and opposition groups who are demanding an international investigation.
The reported death in police custody of Charles Massi, a former defence minister, caused former colonial power France to demand clarity on the issue.
Massi’s case risks becoming a unifying factor for the myriad opposition figures likely to challenge Bozize in a presidential election due in April and will be a test of the nation’s stability.
"Today human rights groups react because Massi was killed. But when 15 of our soldiers were killed by Massi’s rebels, where were the human rights?" Bozize told a gathering of diplomats, politicians and civil society groups in Bangui on Saturday.
He gave no further details of Massi’s death.
Earlier this month authorities said they had no knowledge of Massi’s whereabouts after his wife claimed the CPJP rebel leader had been killed during torture after being arrested.
Bozize said France’s ambassador had contacted him after Massi’s wife had complained about her husband’s fate.
"I told (the ambassador) that Mrs. Massi should have advised her husband not to take part in a rebellion against me ... I am at ease," he said.
Bozize came to power in a 2003 coup and won an election in 2005. But he failed to stamp his authority on one of Africa’s most isolated nations, which is often over-shadowed by crises in neighbouring Sudan and Chad.
CAR is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but pockets of rebellion, chronic instability and the lack of infrastructure have delayed serious investment in the nation.
Massi’s wife says her husband was arrested by Chadian soldiers on their countries’ shared border and transferred to the capital Bangui, where she says he was tortured to death.
Opposition groups, which have pulled out of preparations for the election fearing Bozize would rig it, have called for an international investigation and said they feared more political assassinations of Bozize’s rivals.
The country’s human rights watchdog has also urged an investigation into Massi’s fate.
"The accusation levelled against President Bozize is serious and the High Commission for Human Rights demands that light be shed on the matter," high commissioner Dieudonne Nyankanda said.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned earlier this month that the nation’s fragile peace was at risk. (Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Janet Lawrence)