Chinese officials were yesterday trying to track down eight nationals reportedly freed by their captors in Iraq on a promise from Beijing to ban any more of its citizens from entering the country.
The exact whereabouts of the eight, all migrant workers kidnapped Tuesday on their way home from a construction project, remained unclear one day after Chinese state media reported their release.
"There's still no new development to report," a foreign ministry official in Beijing told AFP yesterday, confirming that contact with the eight had still not been established.
The Dubai-based Arabic news channel Al-Arabiya television station said Saturday that the eight men had been freed, citing a statement by their captors.
"The eight Chinese were freed and handed to the Committee of Muslim Scholars," a leading Sunni religious group in Iraq, a correspondent for the Dubai-based satellite channel reported from Baghdad.
Footage broadcast by Hong Kong's Phoenix TV showed each of the eight dazed-looking Chinese hostages shaking hands with a masked captor, apparently after having been informed of their release.
"The hostages are free, it's for real," a female employee at the embassy in Baghdad told the People's Daily.
"Now, we're pretty anxious to get on with the follow-up work," he added.
At the home of the eight, the island of Pingtan off the southeastern coast of China, relatives wept with joy, believing they had been released from days of anxious waiting.
Xue Jinjiao, the mother of 19-year-old Wei Wu, one of the youngest among the hostages, broke into tears when seeing footage of her son, the Beijing News said.
"Her smile now is bigger than all her smiles of the past 10 years added together," Wei's younger sister told the paper.
Iraqi Deputy President Rowsch Nuri Shaways, currently on a visit to China, said he was "very delighted" to hear the news of the release of the eight, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.
"(The relationship between) Iraq and China will have a splendid prospect," he was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
Even so, the eight men's captors reportedly said China had promised not to send more of its nationals to Iraq in return for the release.
"The Chinese government showed its good intentions with the publication of a presidential decree banning Chinese citizens from entering Iraq," a statement from the captors said, according to Al-Arabiya.
"And the Movement of the Islamic Resistance Nuamaan Brigades decided to release the eight prisoners to confirm the friendly relations between the two countries," the statement said.
China's foreign ministry said earlier it had already warned its citizens to stay out of Iraq.
"What I want to stress is that the Chinese government has previously issued warnings on many occasions to its citizens, requesting them not to travel to Iraq," the ministry's spokesman Kong Quan said in a statement issued Friday.
The safety of Chinese nationals abroad has become a more important issue on the government's agenda, with officials vowing to do more to help compatriots in trouble.
There are currently more than half a million Chinese employed overseas, according to official statistics, which probably underestimate the figures, as they have no way of counting huge numbers of illegal migrants.
Last June, 11 Chinese workers were killed shortly after arriving in Afghanistan to work on a road project.