* China calls for safe return of abducted, missing worker
* Beijing faces expectations it can wield influence to protect citizens
* China has major interests in oil and infrastructure in Sudan (Adds China’s urgent call on Sudan)
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING, Jan 31 (Reuters) - China called on Sudan on Tuesday to seek urgently the release of 29 Chinese workers held by rebels in the border state of South Kordofan and said it had sent a team of officials to help win their freedom.
The Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng summoned a senior diplomat at Sudan’s embassy in Beijing to deliver the message, the official Xinhua news agency said in a brief bulletin.
The message underscored the pressure that China faces to secure the safe return of the abducted construction workers, as did its announcement earlier on Tuesday that it had sent officials from the Foreign Ministry and other agencies to Sudan the previous day to “assist in rescue work”.
The workers’ plight has attracted widespread attention in China and any deaths could become a more serious headache for the government, which Chinese citizens assume can wield its influence to protect nationals abroad.
The abduction is the latest incident dramatising China’s difficulties with companies and workers venturing to dangerous places generally shunned by Western companies.
“The Chinese side calls on all the parties concerned to exercise calm and restraint,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, said in the statement announcing the dispatch of the team.
“Ensure the safety of Chinese personnel, and out of humanitarian considerations release them as soon as possible,” said Liu, in the statement on the ministry website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
The rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) said it took the 29 workers on Saturday for their own safety after a battle with the Sudanese army.
Since June, the Sudanese army has been fighting the SPLM-N in South Kordofan, which is in Sudan bordering the newly independent country of South Sudan.
There was initially hope that some of workers had been released, after Sudan’s state news agency said the military freed 14 of them.
But on Monday, Chinese and Sudanese officials denied the report. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said 29 of the workers remained in rebel hands while another 17 had reached safety and one was missing.
China’s ambassador to Sudan, Luo Xiaoguang, also upped the public pressure on the Sudanese government, according to the Xinhua news agency, urging authorities to find the Chinese nationals quickly.
“We hope that the Sudanese government will continue doing its utmost to bring back the missing and abducted Chinese nationals as soon as possible,” Luo said, according to Xinhua.
The evacuation of tens of thousands of Chinese workers trapped in Libya when fighting broke out there early last year also became a major news event in China. Chinese workers and engineers in Sudan were also abducted in 2004 and 2008.
China has major interests in oil and infrastructure building in Sudan and South Sudan, but those newly divided two sides are at odds over issues including oil revenues. Each accuses the other of supporting insurgencies.
China has more than 100 companies and 10,000 personnel working in both north and south Sudan, China’s then-ambassador to Khartoum, Li Chengwen, said early last year, according to Xinhua.
The abducted workers are employees of the Sinohydro Corp Ltd, which said they were building a $63.2 million road project funded by the Export-Import Bank of China, according to the People’s Daily website (www.people.com.cn).
South Kordofan is the main oil-producing state in Sudan. The SPLM is the ruling party in newly independent South Sudan, which broke off from its northern neighbour. South Sudan denies supporting SPLM-North rebels across the border.
SPLM-North is one of a number of rebel movements in underdeveloped border areas that say they are fighting to overthrow Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and end what they see as the dominance of the Khartoum political elite. (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Robert Birsel)