9 Chinese oil workers kidnapped in southwestern Sudan

Nine Chinese oil workers have been kidnapped in southwestern Sudan, the third such incident in the past year in the oil-rich region, officials said Sunday.

Nine Chinese oil workers have been kidnapped in southwestern Sudan, the third such incident in the past year in the oil-rich region, officials said Sunday.

Sudanese government officials blamed a Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), for Saturday's kidnapping in South Kordofan. No rebel groups, which have been fighting the government for five years, have yet to claim responsibility, and diplomats said the captors may be local tribesmen.

Darfur rebel groups have targeted Chinese nationals because China is the biggest foreign investor in Sudan, buying nearly two-thirds of the African country's oil. The rebel groups claim oil firms help fund Khartoum's war effort against the tribes that support them.

China is believed to be the provider of most of Sudan's small arms, many of which are used in Darfur. Beijing, which has veto power at the United Nations, has resisted tough UN Security Council action against Sudan over the conflict.

The Chinese operate in an oilfield in the Heglig area of the Kordofan region, which lies just east of Darfur and about 700 kilometres southwest of the capital, Khartoum.

The government and rebel groups routinely trade accusations about human rights abuses in Darfur, which borders South Kordofan and where the conflict has raged since 2003. It has left up to 300,000 people dead and driven more than 2.5 million from their homes.

China's ambassador to Sudan, Li Chengwen, said he had little information about the kidnapping or who was behind it. "We are doing our best effort to find them," he said.

Two cars burned

The Sudanese commissioner of the Abyei region, Mohamed al-Dourik Bakhat, told the government-linked Sudan Media Centre the kidnappers were from JEM. He said the kidnappers burned two of the oil workers' cars. One Sudanese driver got away, he said.

A rebel spokesman from JEM, Tahir al-Faki, said he had no information from field commanders that his group was behind the kidnapping, but acknowledged that the group has forces in the area.

Al-Faki said in London his group's aim has never been kidnapping but "distracting the Chinese from operating in the area because they provide the finances and the military means to [the government] to attack our forces."

In Octomber 2007, JEM kidnapped five oil workers, saying at the time the move was a warning to oil firms it accuses of funding Khartoum through oil revenues. The men were later released.

In May, four Indian oil workers and their driver were kidnapped by a tribal group, described at the time as disaffected locals. Diplomats in Khartoum said the kidnappers of the Chinese oil workers are probably the same members of that group.

With files from the Associated Press, Reuters