BEIJING Sudanese rebels said they are looking for ways to hand over 29 Chinese workers held in the border state of South Kordofan, Chinese state media said, as Sudan's government confirmed the death of one worker in a firefight.
The construction workers were captured last Saturday and are apparently being held as pawns in a dispute between Sudan and rebels allied with the newly independent and oil-rich South Sudan.
"Presently we are looking for a way ... to release these Chinese workers, set a date for their release and the party to which they are to be handed over," Arno Taloudy, a rebel spokesman, told China's state news agency Xinhua.
Chinese officials had returned to Khartoum from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and had been urging the rebels through "various channels" to release the workers, beginning with two women being held, Xinhua reported late on Friday.
The case marks the third abduction of Chinese in Sudan since 2004 and highlights the risks to China's expanding economic footprint in Africa, particularly in troublespots often shunned by Western companies.
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.
Beijing is facing immense pressure to secure the safe return of the workers. State-owned newspapers have called for more protection for its overseas workers as the world's second-largest economy expands its investments around the globe.
One worker, previously said to be missing after rescuers came under attack, had been killed by a stray bullet, a Sudanese official said, according to the mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party, the People's Daily.
The official said the body could not be recovered because the area was riddled with land mines, but that authorities had made an "initial determination" of the location of the other Chinese workers, as well as seven Sudanese also captured.
An earlier account from Xinhua quoted the Chinese embassy in Sudan as saying rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) attacked a total of 47 Chinese workers last 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 worker from that group, now dead, had been shot and deemed missing.
Abdalla Masar, a Sudanese government spokesman, told Xinhua that Sudan had not received terms for release and had had no communication with the rebels.
"We never deal with this movement because it is illegal and outlawed," he said.
Sudan and South Sudan, which seceded in July, are at odds over issues including oil revenues. Each accuses the other of supporting insurgencies.
China has sought to maintain good relations with Sudan, a long-time ally, and South Sudan, home to investments by state-owned Chinese oil giants China National Petroleum Corp and Sinopec.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and Sabrina Mao; Editing by Nick Macfie)