(Adds details about workers and public concern in China)
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING Jan 30 Rebels in the Sudan border
state of South Kordofan are still holding 29 kidnapped Chinese
workers, the official Xinhua news agency said on Monday,
contradicting a Sudanese report that 14 of them had been freed.
Their plight has attracted hundreds of thousands of online
comments in China, where the country's expanding footprint
abroad and awareness of its rising status have fanned acute
public sensitivity to any threats to nationals overseas.
The rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N)
said on Sunday it took the 29 workers for their safety after a
battle with the Sudanese army. The army has been fighting the
SPLM-N in South Kordofan bordering on newly independent South
Sudan since June.
Sudan's state SUNA news agency said the military had freed
14 of the workers.
The Chinese embassy in Khartoum said though 17 Chinese
workers were taken to safety by the Sudan army after they
escaped the rebels, another 29 were still held by rebels, Xinhua
Xinhua also quoted an unnamed Sudanese official as denying
that any of the detained workers had been freed.
"The abducted Chinese personnel have had all communications
links with the outside world cut," an unidentified Chinese
embassy official said, according to an earlier Xinhua report.
"The unstable political situation is the root reason for
attack, and the possibility cannot be excluded that the rebels
are targeting Chinese as a bargaining chip with the government,"
Li Xinfeng, a researcher on African affairs at the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences, told the China Daily newspaper.
In a reflection of public concern, Chinese news websites
set up special sections to follow developments and allow readers
to post comments.
By Monday afternoon, the popular Sina news website (news.sina.com.cn)
accumulated over half a million readers' comments discussing
the workers and circulating reports about them on its
accompanying microblog service.
"Wherever Chinese people go, there's always something that
goes awry," said one comment. "It's not easy for Chinese people
who want to make a bit of money," said another.
The mass evacuation of tens of thousands of Chinese workers
trapped in Libya when fighting broke out there last year also
become a major news event.
Sudan, where China maintains major interests in oil and
infrastructure building, has been a focus of Chinese anxieties.
Sudan and South Sudan, at odds over a range of issues
including oil revenues, regularly trade accusations of
supporting insurgencies in each other's territory.
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 which 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.
Chinese reports said the workers were taken by the rebels
who attacked the compound of a Chinese construction company in
the area between the towns of Abbasiya and Rashad in South
Wang Zhiping, a manager for Sinohydro Corp Ltd that employs
the workers, said the company and government agencies were
"doing everything possible to rescue the missing workers",
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Jonathan