Qatari royals among 26 hostages released in Iraq

Indo Asian News Service

Doha/Baghdad, April 22 (IANS) Twenty-six hostages, including members of Qatar's ruling family, were freed after being held for 16 months by unidentified gunmen in Iraq, the media reported.

According to a report in Al Jazeera, the men were freed on Friday and handed over to Iraq's Interior Ministry, but no further details were available on the release of the hostages.

Saudi Arabia welcomed the move and thanked the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, for its efforts to ensure the release of Qataris, said the report.

Two Saudis were also part of the group, according to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

About 100 armed men seized the group of Qatari hunters, which included royal family members and also other nationals, from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq in December 2015.

A Qatari royal and a Pakistani man were later freed.

Media reports connected the fate of the hostages to a complex deal, brokered in part by the Qatari government, to evacuate four besieged towns in Syria.

The deal -- a population swap between rebel and regime areas in Syria -- resumed following a car bomb that killed 126 evacuees from the northern Shia towns of al-Fu'ah and Kafraya last week.

A Qatari source told CNN that Qatar had helped sponsor the Syria deal, but denied that it had anything to do with the hostages in Iraq.

"In regards to the four towns agreement in Syria, Qatar has sponsored negotiations since the beginning of 2015," the source said.

"It's completely humanitarian and has nothing to do with Qatari hostages in Iraq."

Iraqi officials said they had "received" the group of Qatari "hunters". Iraq's Interior Ministry said their passports were checked, photographs and fingerprints taken before they were handed over to Qatari officials.