South Sudan rebel leader says ready for talks with president

JUBA (REUTERS) - The leader of a rebellion against South Sudan's government told Reuters on Monday he was ready for dialogue to end the conflict but said President Salva Kiir must first release his detained political allies.

Former Vice President Riek Machar said he had spoken on Monday to Ethiopia's foreign minister, leader of a team of African mediators trying to end more than a week of fighting that has killed hundreds of people and driven thousands from their homes.

"My message was let Salva Kiir release my comrades who are under detention and let them be evacuated to Addis Ababa and we can start dialogue straightaway, because these are the people who would (handle) dialogue," he said by telephone.

Machar, who was sacked from his post of vice president in July, also said he had spoken to US National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Saturday and UN envoy Hilde Johnson before that.

"A ceasefire is always part of the negotiation, it cannot be done through telephone, nor can it be done through shuttle diplomacy," he said, adding that Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa was his proposed site for talks.

Machar also said he controlled oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile States but did not want to halt production, saying revenue from the fields should be deposited in an escrow account so South Sudan did not lose the funds due to fighting.

Clashes have erupted in oil production areas, with conflicting reports of which side is in control.

"We will protect the oil companies, we will protect the workforce in the oil fields, we will protect the facilities," he said. "All we need is that there will be an international body that will market and sell the oil of south Sudan."

Among those Machar listed should be released were Pagan Amum - chief negotiator during the recent oil shutdown with Sudan, which hosts the sole oil export pipeline; and Rebecca de Mabior, the widow of former South Sudanese leader John Garang.

Machar has said he aspires to be president. When asked if he would demand that post in any talks, he said: "Well, that needs to be agreed. The dialogue is not a dialogue of the deaf for one party, it is the dialogue of two parties in conflict."

Asked where he was based, he said: "I am in the bush, and I am trying my best to have a better negotiating position."

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