Rebels in the Sudan border state of South Kordofan are still holding 29 kidnapped Chinese workers, the official Xinhua news agency said on Monday, contradicting a Sudanese report that 14 of them had been freed.
Their plight has attracted hundreds of thousands of online comments in China, where the country's expanding footprint abroad and awareness of its rising status have fanned acute public sensitivity to any threats to nationals overseas.
The rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) said on Sunday it took the 29 workers for their safety after a battle with the Sudanese army. The army has been fighting the SPLM-N in South Kordofan bordering on newly independent South Sudan since June.
Sudan's state SUNA news agency said the military had freed 14 of the workers.
The Chinese embassy in Khartoum said though 17 Chinese workers were taken to safety by the Sudan army after they escaped the rebels, another 29 were still held by rebels, Xinhua reported.
Xinhua also quoted an unnamed Sudanese official as denying that any of the detained workers had been freed.
The abducted Chinese personnel have had all communications links with the outside world cut, an unidentified Chinese embassy official said, according to an earlier Xinhua report.
The unstable political situation is the root reason for attack, and the possibility cannot be excluded that the rebels are targeting Chinese as a bargaining chip with the government, Li Xinfeng, a researcher on African affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the China Daily newspaper.
In a reflection of public concern, Chinese news websites set up special sections to follow developments and allow readers to post comments.
By Monday afternoon, the popular Sina news website (http://news.sina.com.cn)
accumulated over half a million readers' comments discussing the workers and circulating reports about them on its accompanying microblog service.
Wherever Chinese people go, there's always something that goes awry, said one comment. It's not easy for Chinese people who want to make a bit of money, said another.
The mass evacuation of tens of thousands of Chinese workers trapped in Libya when fighting broke out there last year also become a major news event.
Sudan, where China maintains major interests in oil and infrastructure building, has been a focus of Chinese anxieties.
Sudan and South Sudan, at odds over a range of issues including oil revenues, regularly trade accusations of supporting insurgencies in each other's territory.
South Kordofan is the main oil-producing state in Sudan. The SPLM is the ruling party in newly independent South Sudan, which broke off from its northern neighbour. South Sudan denies supporting SPLM-North rebels across the border.
SPLM-North is one of a number of rebel movements in underdeveloped border areas which say they are fighting to overthrow Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and end what they see as the dominance of the Khartoum political elite.
Chinese reports said the workers were taken by the rebels who attacked the compound of a Chinese construction company in the area between the towns of Abbasiya and Rashad in South Kordofan.
Wang Zhiping, a manager for Sinohydro Corp Ltd that employs the workers, said the company and government agencies were doing everything possible to rescue the missing workers, Xinhua said.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Jonathan Thatcher)