BEIJING (AP) — China's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday summoned a leading Sudanese diplomat to express "deep shock" over the abduction of 29 Chinese workers after an attack in a volatile region of the country.
The summons is a sign of growing Chinese concern over the fate of the workers, three days after they were taken by militants in the South Kordofan region.
Sudanese state media reported Monday that 14 of them had been freed, but the official Xinhua News Agency and China Daily newspaper said all 29 were still being held.
"The Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting overseas Chinese nationals. We felt deep shock over this abduction incident and are deeply concerned over the safety of the 29 Chinese," Vice Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng was quoted as saying in a statement posted on the ministry's website.
China hopes Sudan will "keep in mind the overall situation of bilateral friendship" and ensure their swift release, Xie told Sudanese Charge d'Affaires Omer Eisa Ahmed, according to the statement.
It quoted Eisa as pledging Sudan's full support.
The summons was a rare public sign of tension in China's close political and economic relations with Sudan, which center on exchanging Chinese infrastructure projects for access to Sudanese oil.
That followed the dispatch earlier Tuesday of a group of Chinese security experts to assist in the rescue work.
A statement from the workers' company, Sinohydro Corp., said that it and the Chinese Embassy would "spare no effort in ensuring the personal safety of those abducted and rescuing them."
Xinhua said 47 Chinese workers were caught in the attack in the South Kordofan region of Sudan. It said 29 were captured and the other 18 fled, and that one of those who fled remains missing.
Sudan's state-run SUNA news agency said the attack took place near Abbasiya town, 390 miles (630 kilometers) south of Khartoum.
Sudanese officials have blamed the attack on the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, a branch of a guerrilla movement that has fought various regimes in Khartoum for decades. Its members hail from a minority ethnic group now in control of much of South Sudan, which became the world's newest country only six months ago in a breakaway from Sudan.
Sudan has accused South Sudan of arming pro-South Sudan groups in South Kordofan. The government of South Sudan says the accusations are a smoke screen intended to justify a future invasion of the South.
China has sent large numbers of workers to potentially unstable regions such as Sudan. Last year it was forced to send ships and planes to help with the emergency evacuation of 30,000 of its citizens from the fighting in Libya.
China has used its diplomatic clout to defend Sudan and its longtime leader, Omar al-Bashir. Recently, it has also sought to build good relations with leaders from the south.
South Sudan and Sudan are in bitter dispute over oil, which is produced primarily in South Sudan but runs through Sudanese pipelines for export.