(Adds details of capture and rescue attempt, editorial comment)
By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING, Feb 2 (Reuters) - China will press South Sudan for help in securing the release of 29 Chinese workers held captive by rebels and may appeal to the African Union and other parties to mediate in negotiations, China’s state media reported on Thursday.
The official Xinhua news agency also provided details on how the workers were seized by the rebels in Sudan’s border state of South Kordofan and how some fled during a rescue attempt by Sudanese forces. One man was shot and is missing.
The construction workers were captured last Saturday — apparently held as pawns in a dispute between Sudan and rebels allied with the newly independent and oil-rich South Sudan.
It marked the third case of abduction of Chinese in Sudan since 2004 and highlights the risks to China’s expanding economic footprint in Africa in search of minerals and energy.
Officials China sent to seek the release of the workers will negotiate with South Sudan’s officials in that country’s capital of Juba, according to an “authoritative source” cited by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
“At the same time, (the group will) go through the African Union and other third or fourth parties to mediate,” the paper said. “The purpose is to ensure fully that the 29 compatriots will be able to come home safely.”
Xinhua’s account, quoting the Chinese embassy in Sudan, said rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North attacked a total of 47 Chinese workers on Saturday.
Eighteen managed to flee the scene of the attack and all but one of those were taken to safety after the rescue attempt on Sunday. One man from that group was shot and wounded and was missing. Twenty-nine workers remained in rebel hands and were “still in good physical condition”, Xinhua said.
“The Chinese embassy is very concerned about the fate of this missing person,” Xinhua said. “But his chances of survival are slim as he has been shot and wounded for five days.”
The embassy said the area where the workers were seized had “difficult terrain”, with rebels operating widely.
The workers belonged to state-owned Sinohydro Corporation, a hydropower engineering and construction company. The kidnappings dramatise China’s difficulties as it ventures into risky areas, generally shunned by Western companies.
Beijing is facing immense pressure to secure the safe return of the abducted workers.
In veiled criticism of the government, the state-owned China Daily newspaper called on it “to provide timely protection” to the country’s interests abroad.
“A country with a strong economic muscle should have the capacity to protect its citizens and interests, no matter where they are,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
China has sought to maintain good relations with Sudan, a long-time ally, and newly independent South Sudan, home to investments by state-owned Chinese oil giants China National Petroleum Corp and Sinopec.
Sudan and South Sudan together made up 5 percent of China’s crude oil imports in 2011, or 12.99 million barrels, ranking seventh among China’s oil suppliers. Chinese customs data does not differentiate imports from South Sudan.
Sudan and South Sudan, which seceded in July, are at odds over issues including oil revenues. Each accuses the other of supporting insurgencies.
Arnu Ngutulu Lodi of the SPLM-N told Reuters on Wednesday that rebels had met Chinese diplomats in neighbouring Ethiopia to assure them the kidnapped workers were in good health. But he gave no indication when they might be freed.
The SPLM-N also asked China to pressure Sudan to open humanitarian corridors to supply the rebel-held South Kordofan and Blue Nile areas with food and emergency aid, though that was not stated as a condition for the release of the workers.
On Wednesday, China secured the release of two dozen Chinese cement factory workers who were kidnapped in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a day after being taken hostage by Bedouin tribesmen, Chinese and Egyptian media reported. (Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao, Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)