China tells Sudan to ensure safety after attack claim

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BEIJING, Oct 25 (Reuters) China urged Sudan to protect Chinese staff on oil wells and other projects in the troubled African country, following claims a Darfur rebel group had kidnapped two foreign workers to threaten Beijing today.

The Darfur Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) said yesterday that it had attacked an oil field in the Kordofan region, neighbouring disputed Darfur, and kidnapped two foreign oil workers.

Sudanese officials could not confirm or deny the claim.

''This is a message to China and Chinese oil companies to stop helping the government with their war in Darfur,'' said JEM commander Abdel Aziz el-Nur Ashr.

A Canadian and an Iraqi were seized from the field run by a consortium with Sudanese, Chinese, Indian and Malaysian partners, he said.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said no citizens of his country were injured in the reported attack, but also urged Sudan to step up safeguards.

''We're taking the reports very seriously and hope the parties involved will immediately cease fire and solve the Darfur issue through peaceful negotiations,'' spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

''We also hope that Sudan will take China's concerns seriously and adopt measures to ensure the safety of Chinese personnel.'' Critics say China's military aid and oil investment in Sudan fuelled the north-south war and the newer, separate conflict in the western region of Darfur.

International experts say some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million fled their homes in Darfur since 2003 when rebels took up arms against the government, which in turn mobilized militias to crush the revolt. Sudan says the scale of destruction is much smaller, with only 9,000 dead.

Chinese oil workers have been attacked in Nigeria and Ethiopia as their country turns to volatile parts of Africa for energy. Those on oil projects in Sudan work under heavy guard.

REUTERS SYU VC1555

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