World News

Sudan hunts for kidnapped Chinese oil workers

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese security forces were struggling through rain and harsh terrain to try to rescue nine Chinese oil workers kidnapped in central Sudan two days ago, the government said on Monday.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig said there were no indications the captors had harmed the men whom they snatched on Saturday from a field in South Kordofan state.

“Despite the many handicaps such as the rain and forests, the mission of the law enforcement agencies is to find those who were kidnapped and secure their safety,” Sadig said.

The government and state-run media on Sunday blamed the attack on Darfur rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Diplomats, however, said the kidnappers were probably disaffected local tribesmen from the same group that abducted four Indian oil workers and a Sudanese driver in May.

JEM officials said they had forces in the area but could not confirm whether they were behind the attack, the third of its kind over the past year in the region, which is the source of a large part of Sudan’s oil wealth.

The group seized five oil workers -- an Egyptian, an Iraqi and three Sudanese -- in October 2007 but released them later.

Sadig said the kidnappers were apparently local tribesmen who were also members of the Darfur rebel group.

“A Sudanese driver who escaped said they were members of the Justice and Equality movement from the area,” he told Reuters. “They may have demands such as jobs.”

A diplomatic source told Reuters on Sunday the driver had a note from the kidnappers saying they wanted a settlement through a share of oil money.

The plains of South Kordofan are inhabited by Arab nomads and other tribes that have been protesting about oil revenues being taken out of the region. They say the underdeveloped region has seen little of the oil wealth that has filled government coffers in Khartoum and the semi-autonomous south.

Sadig told the Al Jazeera satellite television the kidnapping was probably provoked by what locals say are the “discriminatory employment policies” of oil firms in the area. “It was not a military operation that can be attributed to JEM,” he said, according to the BBC Monitoring service.

The government and Darfur rebels routinely trade accusations about human rights abuses in Darfur, which borders South Kordofan and where a conflict has raged since 2003. The rebels say oil firms help fund Khartoum’s war effort.

The nine men were doing contract work for the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC). The company is a consortium led by China’s CNPC, that also includes India’s ONGC, Malaysia’s Petronas and Sudan’s state-owned Sudapet.

Sudan produces about 500,000 bpd of crude and China is the biggest foreign investor in the African country.

Writing by Alaa Shahine; Editing by Jon Boyle