Source: Wall Street Journal
The Sudanese rebel group holding 29 Chinese hostages demanded that Beijing persuade the government of Sudan to halt a military offensive in the African nation’s restive south, raising the political stakes in a situation that has already strained China’s ties to a key oil supplier and one of its closest allies.
Sudan’s government said that military operations to rescue the hostages would continue and rejected the rebel calls for a cease-fire.
The rebels, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, said they were holding the hostages in the mountainous region of Nuba, South Kordofan. They asked the Chinese government to move its nationals out of Sudan’s war zones to avoid future abductions. If those conditions are met, the group said, the workers would be returned to safety.
The demands appear to signal a shift in the rebels’ position, from initial statements that the Chinese workers were caught up in fighting in the area to one where they are used as political bargaining chips.
« The SPLM-N calls upon China to contribute to the humanitarian operation and to ask [the] Khartoum government to open safe corridors for humanitarian operations » Yasir Arman, the SPLM-N general secretary said in a statement Wednesday. « SPLM-N calls again upon China to support the demand of an international investigation on the war crimes against [the] Sudanese people, » the statement said, in reference to military attacks on the group.
This isn’t the first time China has been pushed politically in Africa. Last year, Beijing, which has steadfastly opposed the use of force to unseat dictators—was forced to revise its stance in Libya and build bridges with rebels as their campaign to unseat Col. Moammar Gadhafi gained traction.
China has been widely criticized by the U.S. and others for its support of the Khartoum regime, but has budged little and remains Sudan’s biggest investor and powerful diplomatic backer.
Despite rebel appeals for a cease-fire until the hostages are freed, a Sudanese government spokesman pledged to step up pressure on SPLM-N insurgents and predicted an imminent rescue of the Chinese workers. The spokesman, Rabie Adelaty, said Sudan’s troops were working closely with Chinese military advisers, although these advisers weren’t involved in combat operations.
« By the end of today or tomorrow [Thursday], we hope to have rescued all the hostages, » he said.
The abductions, and confusion over whether or not Sudanese security forces had earlier rescued some of the kidnapped Chinese, appear to have frayed ties between the two countries. In an unusual move, Beijing summoned on Tuesday a Sudanese diplomat to complain about his government’s handling of the situation.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has warned travelers to Sudan and the Kordofan region to strengthen safety precautions. A Foreign Ministry official declined Wednesday to discuss the rebel statements or offer any details related to the Chinese hostages in Sudan. Officials at China’s Embassy in Sudan couldn’t be reached to comment Wednesday.
Sudan isn’t the only country where Chinese workers have come under recent attack. Chinese officials said Wednesday that 25 Chinese nationals kidnapped in Egypt on Tuesday had been set free by their captors.
With its history of conflict and array of armed groups, Sudan presents even more complex security challenges.
SPLM-N is an offshoot of the Sudan People Liberation Movement, which came to power in South Sudan, after it was created as the world’s newest country last year. For more than two decades, it fought alongside the SPLM against Sudan’s government in Khartoum but remained in the north after the secession for strategic reasons. The Khartoum government has accused South Sudan of ordering the insurgents to fight government troops, a charge denied by the newly independent state.
In the past several months, South Sudan’s government has been involved in a running feud over oil revenues with Sudan’s government in Khartoum. Though most of the two nation’s oil comes from the south, it is transported through pipelines in the north. In 2008, an attempt to rescue nine workers kidnapped from an oil field of China National Petroleum Corp. ended badly. Four hostages died in a fire fight between the Sudanese military and militias in South Kordofan, the region where the current hostages are being held.
To resolve the Chinese-hostage situation, the SPLM-N general secretary, Mr. Arman, said the rebel group has been holding talks with Chinese officials. The group said it met Monday with China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Xie Xiaoyan, who called for the immediate release of Chinese nationals because they played no part in Sudan’s conflict. Mr. Arman said talks with China are ongoing, and that it is working closely with the field rebels to secure the release of the workers.
By Nicholas Bariyo