By Khalid Abdelaziz
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Four Chinese workers abducted at the weekend in Sudan's western Darfur region have been released, officials and diplomats said on Wednesday.
Unknown gunmen had kidnapped the Chinese - one engineer and three drivers working for a road construction company - together with five Sudanese colleagues on Saturday near al-Fasher in North Darfur.
"The Sudanese government managed to release the four Chinese in Darfur after intensified negotiations with the kidnappers," China's ambassador to Sudan, Luo Xiaoguang, told Reuters. "They are in good health."
Mohammed Suleiman Rabih, commissioner of al-Kuma administration in North Darfur, said the Chinese had been handed over to the international peacekeeper force UNAMID.
Officials refused to give any details of the release. UNAMID confirmed the Chinese had arrived at a one of its compounds in South Darfur, but also would not give details.
Law and order has collapsed in Darfur since mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms in 2003 against the government in Khartoum, which they accuse of neglecting them. Gunmen often kidnap foreigners in Darfur to demand a ransom for their release.
China is Sudan's biggest ally and largest investor in the oil industry there, as it is also in Khartoum's arch-rival South Sudan. Chinese firms are ever-present in Sudan, as most Western firms shun the African country due to a U.S. trade embargo.
Sudan has sought to assure China that it would protect its firms after rebels in Sudan's main oil-producing state of South Kordofan kidnapped 29 Chinese workers in January 2012. They were released almost two weeks later.
In December, a Sudanese court handed out life sentences to four Sudanese for killing a Chinese worker during a raid on a workers' oil camp, the state-linked Sudanese Media Centre said. It gave no details.
Beijing has tried to help Sudan overcome the loss of most oil reserves, the lifeline of the economy, when South Sudan became independent in 2011.
Last week, Sudan's Finance Minister Ali Mahmoud told Reuters China had granted the country a $1.5 billion loan at a time when Sudan is trying to stop a slide of its currency.
(Writing by Ulf Laessing. Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)