* Four prisoners to be released, meeting key rebel demand
* Kiir sacks army, intelligence chiefs
* Conflict increasingly fought along ethnic lines
* U.N. says readying sanctions against both sides
(Recasts with prisoner release, re-writes throughout)
By Carl Odera
JUBA, April 24 South Sudan will free four
high-profile political prisoners facing treason charges, a
presidential spokesman said on Thursday, meeting a demand by
rebels in a faltering peace process.
President Salva Kiir has come under mounting pressure as
rebel fighters loyal to Kiir's sacked deputy, Riek Machar, seize
territory and close in on northern oil fields that provide the
country's economic lifeline.
Kiir sacked his army chief on Wednesday, replacing him with
a loyalist from his own ethnic group as the country's four-month
conflict appears increasingly fought along ethnic lines.
Kiir had accused the four detainees - a former ruling party
official, national security minister, deputy finance minister
and ambassador to Washington - of fomenting a coup when fighting
erupted between soldiers loyal to him and his rival Machar in
mid-December. They faced nine charges each.
"For the sake of peace, these people will be freed. This is
a ministerial order," presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny
told Reuters. But South Sudan's justice minister said Machar
should still face trial for attempting to overthrow Kiir.
There was no immediate reaction to the impending releases
from the rebels.
Machar told Reuters in January the detention of political
rivals was a ploy to scupper peace talks, but diplomats have
questioned both sides' commitment to resolving the crisis. Talks
are due to restart on April 28 after repeated delays.
Their resumption comes as international anger escalates over
the increasingly ethnic dimension to the violence and talk of
sanctions intensifies among donors and at the United
The violence in the central African state, the size of
France, has mainly pitted Kiir's Dinka people against Machar's
Nuer. Thousands have been killed and more than one million
people uprooted from their homes.
In a security reshuffle, Kiir appointed General Paul Malong,
a Dinka, as head of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA),
replacing General James Hoth Mai.
"Malong is a Kiir loyalist and a Dinka hardliner," said one
analyst who did not wish to be identified.
Mai was the most prominent Nuer within the SPLA, a former
guerrilla force which became the national army of the south
after the end of the civil war with Sudan in 2005. He had been
seen as an emblem of Dinka-Nuer cooperation within the military.
Kiir also replaced his head of intelligence
Calls have grown louder in east Africa and in Western
capitals for tough action to be taken against spoilers of the
peace process from both sides after hundreds of civilians were
massacred last week in the northern oil town of Bentiu.
The United Nations said rebels slaughtered men, women and
children hiding in a mosque, church and hospital after capturing
Bentiu, picking out their victims according to their ethnicity.
The rebels have denied the allegation.
Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said Machar's forces took
over Renk town and were nearing Paloch in Upper Nile state, the
biggest oil installation in the country. The rebels urged oil
companies to halt production and evacuate staff.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer, however, said the SPLA had
fought off rebels in Renk. Access to the remote area is
difficult for journalists, making it hard to independently
verify the accounts.
Kenya's parliament on Thursday voted to send 300 troops over
the border into South Sudan to help peacekeeping efforts. A
parliamentary committee said it would urge Kenyan President
Uhuru Kenyatta to freeze the assets of relatives and friends of
Kiir and Machar until there was peace.
(Additional reoprting Aaron Masho in Addis Ababa and Drazen
Jorgic and Humphrey Malalo in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough;
Editing by Mark Trevelyan)