A Qatari hunting party kidnapped in southern Iraq in 2015 has been freed and was being handed over to a Qatari delegation in Baghdad on Friday, a senior interior ministry official told AFP.
Sources close to the negotiations said their release was part of a far-reaching regional deal involving the release of prisoners and the evacuation of civilians in neighboring Syria.
“The interior ministry has received the Qatari hunters, all 26 of them,” the minister’s adviser, Wahab al-Taee, said. “They will be handed over to the Qatari envoy.”
He said the hunters were currently in Baghdad undergoing identity checks by Iraqi officials and would be handed over to a Qatari delegation that has been waiting for them in the capital since last week.
The group of hunters, believed to include one or several prominent members of the Qatari royal family, were kidnapped in mid-December 2015 during a hunting trip in southern Iraq.
Very little information had surfaced since their kidnapping as to their whereabouts or condition.
The ministry adviser would not provide details of the terms of 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 Qataris are now in (Prime Minister) Haider al-Abadi’s office following a deal between Jabhat al-Nusra and the kidnappers,” the source said, referring to the former Al-Qaeda affiliate now known as Fateh al-Sham Front.
There was never any claim for the kidnapping of the hunters who were seized in a Shiite area of Iraq and widely believed to have been nabbed by militias with close ties to Tehran.
The source said the deal included the evacuation of thousands of people from the northern Syrian villages of Fuaa and Kafraya, which are government-controlled but have been besieged by rebels.
Iraq is one of several countries frequented by huntsmen and falconers. Their favored prey is the Asian houbara bustard which are often found in Morocco, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.