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Qatari hostages held in Iraq since 2015 freed

An image grab taken from a handout video released by the Iraqi Interior Ministry on Friday, shows Qatari men who were kidnapped while hunting in southern Iraq in 2015 boarding a plane at Baghdad airport following their release. (AFP)

JEDDAH/DOHA/BAGHDAD: Twenty-six hostages, including Qatar ruling family members, were freed on Friday after being held for 16 months by unidentified gunmen in Iraq, Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera reported.

Al Jazeera said the men were freed and handed over to Iraq’s Interior Ministry, but gave no further details on the release of the hostages, who were seized in December 2015 while on a hunting trip near the border with Saudi Arabia.

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

An Iraqi security official said Iraq was verifying the identities of the men and would hand them over to Qatar’s ambassador to Baghdad.

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. A Qatari royal and a Pakistani man were later freed.

The release of the remaining hostages comes days after a deal was announced in Syria for the evacuation of Syrian civilians and fighters from four besieged towns, which British newspaper the Guardian reported Qatar had helped mediate in exchange for the freeing of the hunters.

The abduction ignited months of negotiations between Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, according to an Arab diplomat in Doha.

Qatari officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction of the hunters.

JEDDAH/DOHA/BAGHDAD: Twenty-six hostages, including Qatar ruling family members, were freed on Friday after being held for 16 months by unidentified gunmen in Iraq, Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera reported.

Al Jazeera said the men were freed and handed over to Iraq’s Interior Ministry, but gave no further details on the release of the hostages, who were seized in December 2015 while on a hunting trip near the border with Saudi Arabia.

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

An Iraqi security official said Iraq was verifying the identities of the men and would hand them over to Qatar’s ambassador to Baghdad.

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. A Qatari royal and a Pakistani man were later freed.

The release of the remaining hostages comes days after a deal was announced in Syria for the evacuation of Syrian civilians and fighters from four besieged towns, which British newspaper the Guardian reported Qatar had helped mediate in exchange for the freeing of the hunters.

The abduction ignited months of negotiations between Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, according to an Arab diplomat in Doha.

Qatari officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction of the hunters.

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