DOHA / BAGHDAD // After nearly a year and a half in captivity, Qatar on Friday secured the release of 26 hostages, including members of its ruling family, in what became possibly the region’s most complex and sensitive hostage negotiation deal in recent years.
Footage released by the Iraqi interior ministry showed some of the former hostages wearing white gowns and red head scarves as they were greeted by officials in Baghdad’s “Green Zone”, where the country’s main institutions are based.
Some of them could be seen later in the video boarding a Qatar Airways plane at Baghdad airport and state media later confirmed they had landed in Doha.
“Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, received Qatari nationals who were kidnapped in the Republic of Iraq on arrival at Doha International Airport this evening, “ read the statement released by the Qatar News Agency.
The statement gave no details about their detention. A large motorcade was seen heading to the airport and then returning through central Doha at around 1600 GMT.
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.
The complexity of the talks highlights Qatar’s role as an experienced and shrewd facilitator in hostage negotiations — this time involving members of the Gulf state’s ruling family.
Qatar is home to Centcom’s regional headquarters and is where the US has its largest military base in the Middle East. It is also a member of the US-led coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
The incident was sparked when the group was kidnapped on December 16, 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. Hunters from the Gulf states often make trips there during the winter months to buy falcons and hunt the Houbara bustard, a rare bird whose meat is prized by Arab sheikhs.
They apparently had permits to hunt in that area inside Muthanna province, some 370 kilometres south-east of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Shiite militias are active in that area and work closely with the neighbouring Shiite power Iran. and the ~Iraqi interior ministry said the hunters had failed to heed government instructions to stay within secured areas of the desert.
A person involved in the negotiations said that 11 of the captives were members of Qatar’s Al Thani ruling family,
and that the Qatari group was being held by Iraqi Shiite militia Kata’eb Hizbollah. The group officially denies it was behind the kidnapping and no other group has publicly claimed responsibility for the abduction.
The abduction of the Qatari group drew Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hizbollah into negotiations which are believed to he taken place in Beirut.
The negotiator said the continuing 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 two opposition-held towns, Zabadani and Madaya, were under government siege for joining the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
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, lso said the population swap in Syria was directly tied to the issue of the kidnapped Qataris.
The population exchange has been criticised by human rights groups, which say it rewards siege tactics and amounts to forcible displacement along sectarian lines.
Iraqi interior ministry official Wahhab Al Taie said the hostages were all Qatari nationals and had been released into the custody of the Iraqi interior ministry. The group departed Friday afternoon on a private Qatari jet from Baghdad airport.
In a statement, interior ministry Qassem Al Araji raised the work of his ministry and the intelligence services in ensuring the hunters’ release.
The ministry would not provide details of the terms of their release but a source close to the negotiations said it was part of a broad regional deal between the kidnappers and Jabhat Al Nusra, formerly known as Fateh Al Sham Front. .
Qataris on social media shared their elation at the release. With a population of around 2.6 million people, the crisis reverberated across the small country.
Their release was a priority of Qatar’s foreign policy for more than a year, said David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
Qatar says it does not support extremist groups in Syria or elsewhere.
Still, Qatar plays an important role by talking to groups that many governments want to distance themselves from, said Ayham Kamel of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
For example, Qatar’s capital city of Doha has hosted talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. Qatar has also secured the release of hostages in Syria’s civil war, including 13 Greek Orthodox nuns held by an al-Qaida affiliate there.
“They’re able to, at different times, be very pragmatic what about needs to be done in narrow agreements,” Mr Kamel said.
Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani called Iraq’s prime minister Haider Al Abadi to thank his government’s efforts to secure the release, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
Qatari officials did not respond to a request for comment.
* Associated Press, Agence France Presse nd Reuters