BEIJING (Reuters) - China will press South Sudan for help in securing the release of 29 Chinese workers held captive for five days and may appeal to the African Union and other parties to mediate in negotiations, state media reported on Thursday.
The construction workers were captured by rebels in the Sudanese border state of South Kordofan last Saturday -- apparently held as pawns in a dispute between Sudan and rebels allied with the newly independent and oil-rich South Sudan.
It marked the third case of abduction of Chinese working in Sudan since 2004 and highlights the risks to China's rapidly expanding economic footprint in Africa in its hunt for minerals and energy.
A team of officials China sent to seek the release of the workers will conduct negotiations with South Sudan's officials in the South Sudan capital of Juba, according to an "authoritative source" cited by the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
"At the same time, (the group will) go through the African Union and other third or fourth parties to mediate," the report said. "The purpose is to ensure fully that the 29 compatriots will be able to come home safely."
China has sought to maintain good relations with both Khartoum, a long-time ally, and newly independent South Sudan, home to investments by state-owned Chinese oil giants China National Petroleum Corp and Sinopec. As the biggest investor in oilfields in South Sudan, Beijing could wield some clout in the negotiations.
Sudan and South Sudan together made up 5 percent of China's crude oil imports in 2011, or 12.99 million barrels, ranking seventh among China's oil suppliers. Chinese customs data does not differentiate imports from South Sudan, which has taken with it about two-thirds of the formerly united country's oil output.
Sudan and South Sudan, which seceded in July, are at odds over issues including oil revenues. Each accuses the other of supporting insurgencies
Arnu Ngutulu Lodi of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) told Reuters that rebel officials had met Chinese diplomats in neighboring Ethiopia to assure them the kidnapped workers were in good health. But he gave no indication of when they might be freed.
The SPLM-N also asked China to pressure Sudan to open humanitarian corridors to supply the rebel-held South Kordofan and Blue Nile areas with food and emergency aid, though that was not stated as a condition for the release of the workers.
The kidnappings dramatize China's difficulties as it ventures into risky areas, generally shunned by Western companies, in search of resources and business.
On Wednesday, China secured the release of two dozen Chinese cement factory workers who were kidnapped in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, a day after being taken hostage by Bedouin tribesmen, Chinese and Egyptian media reported.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Ken Wills and Sanjeev Miglani)