Sudan recovers bodies of Chinese hostages
KHARTOUM (AFP) — The bodies of Chinese hostages and colleagues recovering from a kidnapping ordeal were to be flown to Khartoum on Tuesday as Sudan vowed to step up security for foreign oil workers across the country.
But the circumstances surrounding the killings on Monday slipped into ever murkier waters as a Darfur rebel group denied claims by Sudan that it was responsible and China revised the initial death toll down from five to four.
The Khartoum government initially said that five of nine Chinese oil workers kidnapped on October 18 were shot dead by their captors on Monday. It said two "escaped" with minor injuries and two remained in captivity.
On Tuesday, China's foreign ministry said four workers were killed, four were "rescued" and one was missing.
Sudan denied any confrontation between security forces and the kidnappers, insisting it pressed only peaceful means for their release.
But one local leader in troubled South Kordofan state, where the hostages were abducted and killed, said the Chinese died as a result of fighting between the Sudanese army and the kidnappers.
Another local tribesman told AFP that he saw the Sudanese authorities hand over three bodies to the Chinese ambassador at Heglig, two wounded colleagues and one who had been "rescued." He claimed three others were "lost."
Senior officials in Khartoum were not immediately available for comment.
Beijing condemned the killings as an "inhumane terrorist" act, but indicated that its involvement in the conflict-ridden African country, where China is the biggest exporter of oil and a key investor, would not change.
"We express strong indignation and condemnation for the inhumane terrorist deed of the kidnappers in killing these unarmed workers," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.
"In the future we will continue to value and implement a friendly policy towards Sudan," she added.
Ali Yousuf of Sudan's foreign ministry told AFP that the bodies would be flown to Khartoum, where arrangements were being made for their repatriation.
Three engineers and six other workers from the China National Petroleum Corporation worked in an oil-rich area of South Kordofan state, which lies on the fault line between former warring north and south Sudan.
Diplomatic sources said the nine were taken by Arab tribesmen but the government blamed the strongest Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
Sudan vowed to step up security for the oil industry, the economic lifeline that has fuelled a long-standing boom in Khartoum, despite massive disparities in development across a country where millions still live in poverty.
"Such ugly acts are against the values of the Sudanese people. The Sudanese authorities will spare no efforts to protect the workers in the oil fields and all investments in Sudan," said foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadiq.
JEM, which seeks to represent the dispossessed across Sudan, not just in the war-torn western region of Darfur, denied involvement in the kidnappings.
"Did JEM do it? The answer is no. We don't kidnap. We don't take hostages. JEM has nothing to do with it," Tahir el-Faki, the London-based chairman of the movement's legislative assembly, told AFP by telephone.
"We have forces in the region, we have the support of the people there. Some of the Messeria people are affiliated to us. Some of them may take actions but not in the name of JEM," said Faki.
The International Crisis Group think tank warns against a "deteriorating situation" in South Korfodan, comparing tensions to those that sparked the Darfur conflict, and where armed inhabitants feel abandoned by political forces.
The Arab-led government in Khartoum considers JEM a "terrorist" organisation and the group embarrassed the regime by attacking the capital last May.
Darfur rebels have kidnapped oil workers, often targeting Chinese companies because of their strong ties with Khartoum, although all emerged unscathed.
The Messeria were blamed for kidnapping four Indian oil workers and their Sudanese driver in the same area in May. All five escaped or were released.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against government and state-backed militias, fighting for power and money.