Baghdad: After nearly a year and a half in captivity, 26 hostages, including members of Qatar's ruling family, were released on Friday, Iraqi officials said, in what had become possibly the region's most complex and sensitive hostage negotiations in recent years.
Several people with knowledge of the talks and a person involved in the negotiations said the hostage deal was linked to one of the largest population transfers in Syria's six-year-long civil war, and was delayed for several days due to an explosion one week ago that killed at least 130 people, most of them children and government supporters, waiting to be transferred.
The transfer of thousands of Syrian civilians was also tied to another deal involving 750 political prisoners to be released by the Syrian government.
It also raises allegations that the tiny energy-rich nation, which has aggressively backed Sunni groups fighting to topple the Syrian government, paid millions of dollars to an al-Qaida-linked group to facilitate the population transfer in Syria that led to the hostages' release in Iraq.
Iraqi Interior Ministry official Wahhab al-Taie told The Associated Press the hostages were all Qatari nationals and had been released into the custody of the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
An airport official said the group departed on Friday afternoon on a private Qatari jet from Baghdad airport.
Two other Iraqi officials and another security official also confirmed details of the release to the AP. They said the handover had been delayed for several days in part because Iraqi officials did not want ransom money exchanged or negotiations for their release to happen on Iraqi soil. The three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
The handover was also delayed by the bombing of evacuees in Syria, according to Iraqi officials, the negotiator and the head of a Syrian opposition group that monitors the war.
The abduction of the Qatari group had sparked more than a year of negotiations between Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, resulting in millions of dollars in payments to Sunni and Shiite factions, according to Iraqi officials and a person involved in the negotiations.
They say the talks took place in Beirut. Qatari officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hezbollah officials were not immediately available for comment.
The group was kidnapped on December 16, 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. They apparently had permits to hunt in that area inside Muthanna province, some 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Shiite militias are active in that area and work closely with the neighboring Shiite power Iran.
In April 2016, the Qatari Foreign Ministry said one of the hunters and an Asian worker on the trip had been freed.
A person involved in the negotiations told the AP that 11 of the captives were members of the Al Thani family. He also said Qatar paid tens of millions of dollars to Shiite groups, and to the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee and Ahrar al-Sham, which are involved in the evacuation and transfer of detainees. Both groups were part of an armed opposition alliance that swept through Syria's Idlib province, seizing it from government control in 2015 and laying siege to the two pro-government villages.
Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, the negotiator said the Qatari group was being held by Iraqi Shiite militia Kata'eb Hezbollah. The group officially denies it was behind the kidnapping and no other group has publicly claimed responsibility for the abduction.
He said Qatari officials were given assurances about the well-being of the hostages during negotiations.
The negotiator said the ongoing evacuation and transfer of thousands of Syrians from four besieged areas was central to the release of the Qataris. The two pro-government villages, Foua and Kfarya, had been besieged by rebel fighters and under a steady barrage of rockets and mortars for years.
The opposition-run Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of on-the-ground activists, says the transfer included 800 armed men from both sides. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the group, told the AP that the population swap in Syria was directly tied to the issue of the kidnapped Qataris.
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 criticized by rights groups, which say it rewards siege tactics and amounts to forcible displacement along sectarian lines.The AP reported last week that a Qatari ruling family member paid USD 2 million in an effort involving hackers to secure the release of the hostages.