29 Chinese Workers Captured in Sudan (Updated)

Sudanese rebels claimed on Sunday that they abducted 29 Chinese road workers after a battle between the rebels and the Sudanese army, though the army claims the rebels attacked the workers’ compound. From Reuters:

The army has been fighting rebels of the SPLM-N in South Kordofan bordering newly independent South Sudan since June. Fighting spread to the northern Blue Nile state in September.

“We are holding 29 Chinese workers after a battle with the army yesterday,” a spokesman for the SPLM-N said. “They are in good health. We are holding them for their own safety because the army was trying to strike again.”

The army said rebels had attacked the compound of a Chinese construction company operating in the area between the towns of Abbasiya and Rashad in the north of the state and captured 70 civilians.

“Most of them are Chinese. They (the rebels) are targeting civilians,” said army spokesman Sawarmi Khalid Saad.

Chinese state media reported on Monday that all contact had been lost with the workers, while Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party condemned the attack and a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry confirmed that the two sides had begun emergency procedures. Power Construction Corp of China, the employer of the abducted Chinese nationals, told Xinhua News that it had launched its own emergency response:

Wang Zhiping, a senior executive of the company, told Xinhua that the company had set up an emergency work group at its headquarters in order to closely monitor the latest development of the case.

Wang said the company had been in touch with the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese Embassy to Sudan, and Sudan’s government about rescuing the missing workers.

The company had also ordered its overseas branches to upgrade security to prevent similar cases from happening, Wang said.

The attack occurred the same day that a top Chinese political advisor met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at the African Union Summit in Ethiopia, where the two sides spoke of their friendly cooperation. China is the largest foreign investor in Sudan, according to The Global Times, and Sudan attracts the largest slice of Chinese investment in Africa:

“A large part of Chinese overseas investments is still concentrated in undeveloped and developing areas. The problem is that Chinese companies rely too much on the protection of host nations while lacking up-to-date risk analysis and response mechanisms,” said He Wenping, deputy director of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“Besides increasing alertness and strengthening coordination with local governments, it’s time for Chinese companies to consider inviting private security companies to guarantee the safety of their overseas investments,” He said.

China has sent work crews to unstable parts of the world for decades, says The New York Times, but Internet proliferation and the increased availability of information from abroad have given the Chinese public a better glimpse into the dangers faced by such workers:

Neil Ashdown, an Asia and Pacific analyst based in London for IHS Global Insight, a consulting firm, said that Chinese firms tend to send more people to work on projects abroad than Western companies do, and that the workers are more likely to be joined by their families, putting even more Chinese in dangerous locations.

At the same time, in the last three years Chinese Internet users have become much more vociferous in demanding that their government protect Chinese citizens in danger around the world, comparing Beijing’s efforts unfavorably with rescues mounted by Western nations.

“The Chinese government and the military should send in our commandos to infiltrate deeply into Sudan and rescue the kidnapped 29 Chinese workers, should talks fail,” wrote one Chinese blogger using the tag line, “Good luck to our military guys.”

Update: Sudanese troops have freed 14 of the workers, according to Sudanese officials. From BBC News:

State media quoted South Kordofan governor Ahmed Mohamed Haroun as saying that the military “liberated” the workers, who were in good health.

The search for the remaining Chinese workers – who were involved in the construction of a road – is continuing.

A Sudanese government spokesman called the abductions “a crime against humanity,” according to The New York Times:

On Monday, Mr. Rabie said that the kidnapping of the Chinese workers was “supported by the South Sudan government,” while at the same time, officials in South Sudan blamed Khartoum for backing recent militia attacks in South Sudan. It was not clear why Sudanese rebels would have kidnapped Chinese workers.

On Sunday, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, a rebel group operating in Kordofan and allied to South Sudan, said it “has nothing against China and the Chinese.”

“The leadership of the S.P.L.M.-N.,” said a statement from the group, is “exerting the maximum effort to obtain accurate information from our forces in the field regarding the Chinese who were detained in Southern Kordofan.”