By John Kanyunyu
KABATI, Congo, Jan 8 (Reuters) - A dissident commander who is challenging General Laurent Nkunda's leadership of Congo's Tutsi rebels said on Thursday Nkunda was obstructing efforts to achieve peace in the country's war-ravaged east.
Amid a war of words that indicated a split in Nkunda's insurgent National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), General Bosco Ntaganda reasserted a claim to have toppled the rebel movement's charismatic founder.
The apparent power struggle emerged as the Tutsi rebel group, whose attacks in east Democratic Republic of Congo in recent months have displaced a quarter of a million civilians, resumed peace talks this week with Congo's government.
Ntaganda, the rebels' top military commander who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes, announced on Monday he had deposed Nkunda in a statement read by a spokesman to the BBC. Senior CNDP military and political representatives said the announcement was false.
In his first public appearance since breaking with Nkunda, Ntaganda, known as "the Terminator", spoke to journalists at a hillside farm at Kabati, a village located among verdant pastures in Congo's eastern North Kivu province, the scene of heavy fighting last year.
"(Nkunda) was an obstacle to peace. We no longer will be ... The head of the CNDP has been removed, but the CNDP remains," Ntaganda said.
Nkunda insists he remains in control of the rebel movement and says his military chief will be disciplined for insubordination, which he called an "act of madness".
"If there are people loyal to General Bosco (Ntaganda), they are not CNDP. The CNDP is one and indivisible," Nkunda said in comments to Radio France International. He launched his rebellion in 2004 saying he wanted to protect eastern Congo's Tutsi minority from attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels.
"For the moment, it appears most military commanders have rallied behind Nkunda," Congo expert Jason Stearns told Reuters.
"Nonetheless, Bosco also has some pull with officers and was always one of the most popular commanders with the rank-and-file soldiers, most of whom are from the same Gogwe clan," said Stearns, who has worked for the International Crisis Group think-tank, specialising in Congo.
In Kabati, Ntaganda appeared flanked by fellow rebel commanders as dozens of fighters stood guard.
"I have the support of the CNDP membership and commanders. The CNDP has demands. If the government responds to them, I am ready to bring peace," he said.
Nkunda told RFI he believed Ntaganda was supported only by his personal escort and not by other CNDP officers.
After launching a renewed offensive in late August, Nkunda's battle-hardened rebels routed President Joseph Kabila's army and captured large swathes of North Kivu before declaring a unilateral ceasefire in late October.
Subsequent peace talks in Nairobi under United Nations and African Union mediation have made little headway.
In an effort to ease tensions with neighbouring Rwanda, which a U.N. report has accused of backing the CNDP, Congo agreed in December to launch military operations against Congo-based Rwandan Hutu rebels, Nkunda's traditional enemies.
Ntaganda said he would join operations against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. The anti-FDLR operations, prepared with Rwandan military and intelligence help, are due to begin before the end of March.
"We now have a common enemy, the FDLR," Ntaganda said. "We will participate in this hunt. That way there will no longer be any problem between us and (the Congolese army)," he added.
U.N. officials and human rights campaigners said Ntaganda may have launched his challenge to Nkunda after learning that the CNDP leadership planned to discipline him over a massacre in the North Kivu town of Kiwanja in November.
Human rights groups say about 150 civilians were killed after rebels led by Ntaganda seized the town.
Up to now, the CNDP has denied its fighters slaughtered civilians, blaming rival pro-government Mai-Mai militiamen.
In April last year, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Ntaganda, accusing him of recruiting children under 15 to fight in an ethnic-based conflict in northeast Ituri district. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/) (Editing by Pascal Fletcher)