Saturday, 17 November, 2018

Qatar royals among 26 hostages freed after delicate deal struck

Kidnapped Qatari hunting party of 26 released in Iraq after 16 months Google Maps
Ellis Copeland | 23 April, 2017, 03:13

Two Iraqi officials say that 26 hostages, including members of Qatar's ruling family, have been released after 16 months in captivity in Iraq.

Their release was a boost for tiny Qatar which has used its influence to free foreign hostages in war zones but was alarmed when 26 of its own citizens were seized by unidentified gunmen in 2015 while hunting in southern Iraq.

The ministry official would not provide details of the deal reached for their release, but a source close to the negotiations told AFP on condition of anonymity that it was part of a broad regional deal.

The group was kidnapped by a group of 100 armed men in December 2015 during a hunting trip in the Muthanna governorate of southern Iraq, a famed desert spot for falcon hunters.

Their abduction in territory dominated by militias aligned with neighbouring Shi'ite power Iran led to long negotiations among Qatar, Iran and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, according to an Arab diplomat in Doha.

Iraqi officials said they had "received" the group of Qatari "hunters".

Their release comes days as part of a complex deal that includes evacuation of four besieged towns in Syria.

Discussions had taken place in Doha since the start of the year.

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In a statement, interior ministry Qassem Al Araji raised the work of his ministry and the intelligence services in ensuring the hunters' release.

He said Qatar paid tens of millions of dollars to Shiite groups and the al Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee and Ahrar al-Sham, which are involved in the population transfers.

Qatar's Foreign Ministry confirmed earlier that the group of Qataris had entered Iraq "with official permission from Iraq's Interior Ministry and in coordination with the Iraqi embassy in Doha".

He said Qatari officials were given assurances about the well-being of the hostages during negotiations.

The agreement also saw hundreds of civilians and fighters leave rebel-held areas near Damascus under siege by pro-government forces.

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the deal was drafted by Qatar - which backs the opposition to the Syrian regime - following negotiations between representatives of Iran, Hezbollah and a Sunni Islamist rebel alliance.

Abdurrahman, citing information from negotiators he'd spoken with, said the Qataris first proposed bringing the fate of the hunting group into the talks about the besieged four areas in Syria.

The population exchange has been criticised by rights groups, which say it rewards siege tactics and amounts to forcible displacement along sectarian lines.

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