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)
Updated 22 April 2017

Qatari hostages held in Iraq since 2015 freed

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.

Arab coalition bombs Houthis around Hodeidah airport, urges them to withdraw

Updated 33 min 27 sec ago

Arab coalition bombs Houthis around Hodeidah airport, urges them to withdraw

ADEN: Arab coalition aircraft bombarded Houthi fighters holed up at the airport of Yemen’s main port Hodeidah on Monday as a senior alliance official said he hoped UN diplomacy could coax the Iran-aligned movement to cede the city to “save the population.”
There are fears that a prolonged battle for the city, where the Houthis are dug in to protect critical supply lines from the Red Sea to their bastion in the capital Sanaa, could aggravate what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.
The Western-backed Arab alliance launched an offensive on Hodeidah six days ago in order to turn the tables in a long- stalemated war that has compounded instability across the Middle East.
UAE forces are spearheading the Hodeidah offensive, now focused on the airport of the Red Sea city.
On Monday Apache helicopter gunships fired at Houthi snipers and other fighters positioned on the rooftops of schools and homes in the Manzar neighborhood abutting the airport compound, according to local residents.
Houthi forces had blocked roads to the airport, they said.
The Houthis’ Al-Masira television reported six coalition air strikes on the Duraihmi district in the vicinity of the port.
The upsurge in fighting has wounded dozens of civilians and prevented aid organizations from reaching parts of Hodeidah.
In Geneva, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein voiced concern the Arab offensive could cause “enormous civilian casualties and have a disastrous impact on life-saving aid to millions of people which comes through the port.”
A senior UAE official said the coalition was taking a measured approach to the battle to minimize risks to civilians and was allowing the Houthis an escape route inland to Sanaa.
In addition, 100 trucks of food aid were en route to Hodeidah on the road from coalition-controlled Aden and Mokha to the south, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told a news conference in Dubai.
“We have planned diligently around the humanitarian challenge. Our approach is methodical, gradual, calibrated to squeeze, to make a point, to allow the Houthis to do the right thing, which is basically decide to withdraw unconditionally.”
The Houthis’ days in Hodeidah were numbered, he said, and they needed to “as much as possible save the population.”
He said the coalition was counting on Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, to “pull a rabbit out of a hat” and secure Houthi agreement to vacate Hodeidah.
Griffiths returned to Sanaa on Saturday for talks. Houthi authorities and the United Nations office in Sanaa said he would stay until Tuesday, after originally saying he would depart on Monday, hinting at possible progress in his discussions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned on Monday that fresh military action would not resolve Yemen’s crisis.
“The crisis in Yemen should be resolved through political channels...A military approach will fail...Yemen’s stability and security is important for the Middle East,” Rouhani told Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in a phone call.
The Houthis, who rule the most populous areas of Yemen, a chronically unstable nation of 30 million people, deny being puppets of Iran and say their revolt is against corruption and foreign invasion.
Gargash estimated the number of Houthi fighters in Hodeidah at between 2,000 to 3,000. “(They are) militia, non-descript, not in uniform, majority work in small groups, snipers, with heavy extensive use of anti-personnel and other mines.”
Gargash declined to reveal the size of coalition forces but said they enjoyed “numerical superiority.”
The Arab alliance has asserted that it can take Hodeidah quickly enough to avoid interrupting aid and that it would focus on capturing the airport and port and avoid street fighting.
But the coalition has not tried to capture such a heavily defended major city since entering the war, and humanitarian groups fear the battle for Hodeidah could drag out.
This would intensify the suffering of civilians who have already endured devastating air strikes, port blockades, hunger and a cholera epidemic.
Yehia Tanani said he and his family left Manzar three days ago and walked for 3 km (1.86 miles), hiding behind walls and under trees to avoid air strikes, before finding shelter at a fish farm.
“They told us that some humanitarian organizations are going to send buses but then they said no buses could come in or out. So we started walking on foot carrying our children, sitting every while for rest while the Apaches hovered above us. We were scared not knowing if we’d be shot or not,” he said.
“Now we’re in this school, no mattresses, no electricity, no water, no bathrooms, nothing. And we have children who need medicine, need food, need anything, but we don’t have anything,” he said, sitting on the floor of an empty classroom of a school being used to house those displaced by the fighting.
Children slept on the floor of empty classrooms while others sat forlornly in the courtyard, where a few items of clothing and blankets were draped over balconies and upturned desks.