But the accused rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which has been fighting the Sudanese government for close to six years in Darfur, said it had nothing to do with the incident, accusing the government of trying to distract the international community from its own crimes in Darfur.
Nine employees of the China National Petroleum Corp. were kidnapped on Oct. 18 while working at an oil field in the central Sudanese state of South Kordofan, which neighbors the troubled Darfur region and straddles the contested border between Sudan's north and south.
"This is unprecedented in Sudan, to have kidnapping and killing of foreign workers by rebel groups," says Ted Dagne, a senior researcher on Sudan for the Congressional Research Service in Washington. Even so, there has been growing tension in the oil rich region of Kordofan in recent years, particularly ahead of next year's national elections. "It has been brewing for quite a while, the rebellion in Kordofan. And the government itself has been arming militias in this area. So, it's not clear who this was, and why it has happened now."
The attack on Chinese oil workers and interests in Sudan comes as many international diplomats are hoping that China will influence its business partner, Sudan, to come to terms with rebel groups and end the six-year war in Darfur. While it is not clear who carried out the killings, the very proximity of Kordofan to both Darfur and to South Sudan – which had its own 21-year civil war against Sudan – is a sign that Sudan’s conflicts may widen and converge.
"This is very bad news," says Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert at Harvard University. "The Chinese feel unfairly targeted by world opinion, and reasonably so, because they actually don't have as much influence in Sudan as some people think. They can't dictate what the Sudan government does."
He says China might decided the risks are too great to continue oil operations in Sudan. "On the other hand ... they need oil, and they are not as sensitive to losing people as the Americans or the British would be," since they don't have an open news media to criticize Chinese policy in Sudan.
At press time, two bodies were still missing, and one of the kidnapped men remains at large, possibly still in the hands of his captors, the Sudanese foreign ministry said.
China's foreign ministry called the incident an "inhumane terrorist deed."
JEM accuses China of indirectly supporting the government's military action in Darfur through the supply of arms and investment in the oil industry. But the rebel group said it was not involved in this latest incident. "JEM is committed to the provisions of international humanitarian law, which prohibits attacks on civilians and prohibits hostage taking," said London-based spokesman Ahmed Hussain Adam. "The government militias are responsible. They want to divert the attention from this issue of the [International Criminal Court], from all this pressure they are under."
In July, the chief prosecutor asked the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on the basis of his role in the Darfur conflict. The court is to decide in the coming weeks or months whether to grant the warrant that alleges Mr. Bashir is involbed in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Mukhtar Babu El-Nimer, chief of the Arab Misseriya tribe in the Muglad region of South Kordofan, said the kidnappers were of his tribe, but associated with the JEM rebel group.
"They want development. This area has no development and the oil is pouring out of it. The government has done nothing for them," he said.
Oil workers have been targeted in the region before. In May, the same Misseriya tribe kidnapped four Indian oil workers. All but one escaped or were released.