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Five Chinese Oil Workers Killed in Sudan

Sudan said Darfur rebels on Monday shot and killed five kidnapped Chinese oil workers

Sudan said Darfur rebels on Monday shot and killed five kidnapped Chinese oil workers. Nine Chinese oil workers had been kidnapped, the ministry said - two escaped on Monday with gunshot wounds and two are still being held in the first deadly foreign hostage ordeal since the war began.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths were shadowy and Sudan denied that there had been any clashes between security forces and the kidnappers, who reportedly identified themselves as the Justice and Equality Movement.

Two other Chinese oil workers - from a group of nine snatched on October 18 in Korodofan outside Darfur - remain in captivity, said the government.

"It happened around 3:00 pm (1200 GMT). Those people from JEM killed five Chinese and two of the Chinese workers managed to escape. They are now with the government," foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadiq told AFP.

The killings came one day after Sudan expressed confidence that the three engineers and six workers from the China National Petroleum Corporation, would soon be released safe and well.

China, the main buyer of Sudan's oil, a key economic investor and perhaps Khartoum's most powerful foreign ally, has been accused in the West of not doing enough to help bring an end to the nearly six-year conflict in Darfur.

The bodies and the two wounded former hostages were recovered by Sudanese government forces in a small village in western Kordofan, and the injured are undergoing medical treatment, the spokesman said.

"This happened without any confrontation with the abductors, while the government was trying to solve the problem through peaceful means," said Sadiq.

But one local leader denied the official version of events.

"There was fighting between the Sudanese army and the kidnappers. As a result of this fighting, the five have been killed," he told AFP by telephone from Kordofan, asking that his identity not be disclosed.

Tribal mediators on Monday went into the bush hoping to see the abductors for the first time, but returned to the town of Muglad without meeting them.

JEM has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the kidnapping.

The Khartoum government, which has been fighting an ethnic insurgency in the western region of Darfur since 2003, condemned the killings as a heinous crime and vowed that China-Sudan relations would not be affected.

"This heinous act has taken place on the direct instructions of the JEM leadership and they have so many times in the past threatened the Chinese," said Sadiq, who first made the announcement on state television.

The Arab-dominated government in Khartoum has labelled JEM a "terrorist" organisation. Since the group attacked the Sudanese capital last May, analysts say its fighters have gone to ground, plotting a follow-up course of action.

Sudanese officials met the Chinese ambassador to Khartoum on Monday to convey their condolences to Beijing and the families of the deceased.

"The ambassador agreed this will not affect the strong relationship between China and Sudan and both countries will continue to cement relations," said the foreign ministry spokesman.

No one from the Chinese embassy was reachable for comment but China's Xinhua news agency said embassy officials had confirmed and condemned the killings.

The Chinese were abducted in South Kordofan, a state which includes the disputed oil region of Abyei, where fighting between former warring north and south Sudan sparked fears of a return to civil war, also in May.

The war began in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels took up arms, fighting for power and money from the Arab-dominated regime and state-backed militias.

In the past, Darfur rebels have kidnapped foreign oil workers from Sudanese oilfields, often targeting Chinese companies because of their strong ties with Khartoum, although all of those abducted eventually emerged unscathed.

An Arab newspaper reported on Friday that the kidnappers wanted Chinese oil firms to leave the area immediately in exchange for the hostages' release.

The Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper identified the alleged leader of the kidnappers as Abu Humaid Ahmad Dannay, who reportedly said he commands JEM in Kordofan, which neighbours southeastern Darfur.

Dannay, who Asharq Al-Awsat said belonged to the Arab Messeria tribe, had said the hostages were in good health and being well treated.

The Messeria were blamed for kidnapping four Indian oil workers and their Sudanese driver in the same area in May. All five escaped or were released.