The kidnappers of nine Chinese oil workers in Sudan killed at least three of them Tuesday after being spooked by a surveillance plane, a Sudanese government official said, contradicting Chinese claims of a botched rescue.
Initially the Sudanese government said five hostages had been killed. But the undersecretary at the Foreign Ministry, Mutrif Siddiq, told reporters only three of the Chinese workers were confirmed dead and three others were injured and receiving medical care. Three more remain missing.
"Our forces are now scouring all the hiding places to search for the missing, whether killed or injured," Siddiq told reporters at the airport, where the coffins of three victims were unloaded.
A dozen Chinese peacekeepers saluted the coffins covered in red Chinese flags.
The kidnappers "are running, they are scared, maybe they will do something reckless. We really don't know the status of these missing," Siddiq said.
China originally said that the hostages had been killed during a Sudanese rescue operation. But Siddiq insisted there were no clashes, only a plane tracking their movements overhead. The kidnappers, he said, shot randomly at the aircraft as they fled the scene.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said China was involved in the rescue attempt, but declined to say if the Chinese government had been in contact with the rebels and refused to give further details. She said China had a working group in Sudan at the time of the rescue.
The deaths are one of the most violent acts China has faced in recent years as its businesses expand worldwide to buy energy and other raw materials or find new markets.
Sudan's Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Hussein called the slayings a "terrorist act," and Foreign Ministry officials said there will be new measures to protect foreign interests in Sudan.
China buys nearly two-thirds of Sudan's oil, providing crucial revenue to the government. This has angered anti-government forces in Darfur, where a civil war has left 300,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced.
Jiang said China would not cut its business ties with Sudan, saying they were beneficial to both countries.
"We have actually played a constructive and contributing role in Sudan's economic and social development. Our companies have brought a lot of benefit to the local people and we will continue to keep our friendly cooperation with Sudan," she said.
Sudan's government has blamed Darfur rebels for kidnappings, but on Tuesday a spokesman for the rebels denied involvement.
"Even though China has become a partner in supporting the government military offensive in Darfur, we remain committed to international laws ... and we condemn such an attack," said Ahmed Hussein, spokesman for Justice and Equality Movement, which the government specifically accused of the kidnapping.
A tribal leader from the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the kidnappers were Arab gunmen who were part of a government militia and who now feel neglected by Khartoum.