First Published: 2017-04-21

Kidnapped Qataris freed in Iraq, Syria evacuations resume
Qatari hunters kidnapped in Iraq freed under broad regional deal brokered by former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra which includes evacuation of civilians in Syria.
Middle East Online

Syrian protesters hold Jabhat al-Nusra flag

BAGHDAD - A Qatari hunting party kidnapped in southern Iraq in 2015 has been freed and was being handed over to a Qatari delegation in Baghdad on Friday, a senior interior ministry official said.

Sources close to the negotiations said their release was part of a far-reaching regional deal involving the release of prisoners and the evacuation of civilians in neighbouring Syria.

"The interior ministry has received the Qatari hunters, all 26 of them," the minister's adviser, Wahab al-Taee, said. "They will be handed over to the Qatari envoy."

He said the hunters were currently in Baghdad undergoing identity checks by Iraqi officials and would be handed over to a Qatari delegation that has been waiting for them in the capital since last week.

The group of hunters, believed to include one or several prominent members of the Qatari royal family, were kidnapped in mid-December 2015 during a hunting trip in southern Iraq.

Very little information had surfaced since their kidnapping as to their whereabouts or condition.

The ministry adviser would not provide details of the terms of their release but a source close to the negotiations said on condition of anonymity that it was part of a broad regional deal.

"The Qataris are now in (Prime Minister) Haider al-Abadi's office following a deal between Jabhat al-Nusra and the kidnappers," the source said, referring to the former Al-Qaeda affiliate now known as Fateh al-Sham Front.

There was never any claim for the kidnapping of the hunters who were seized in a Shiite area of Iraq and widely believed to have been nabbed by militias with close ties to Tehran.

The source said the deal included the evacuation of thousands of people from the northern Syrian villages of Fuaa and Kafraya, which are government-controlled but have been besieged by rebels.

- Syria deal -

The evacuations were under way on Friday, with hundreds being taken to Aleppo, which has been under full government control since late last year.

The evacuees were forced to spend two nights in their buses at a marshalling area after last-minute disagreement over the release of prisoners held by President Bashar al-Assad's government.

The evacuations began last week but were delayed after a suicide car bombing killed 126 people, 68 of them children, at the transit point in Rashidin on April 15.

Assad on Friday blamed Nusra for the bombing in an interview with Russia's RIA Novosti news agency.

"It was Jabhat al-Nusra, they haven't hidden it from the very start, and I think that everyone agrees that it was Nusra," Assad said, referring to the jihadist group now known as the Fateh al-Sham Front that has supposedly severed its ties with al-Qaeda.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, one of the deadliest episodes since the start of Syria's six-year civil war.

In the interview translated into Russian, Assad denied there had been a chemical attack this month in the town of Khan Sheikhun, claiming there was "100 percent" certainty that rebels had obtained chemical weapons from Turkey.

"The only route for terrorists to receive money, weapons and any kind of materials, new recruits or such substances goes through Turkey," he said.

Assad added that Damascus had lost "more than 50 percent" of its air defence systems and that Syria was in talks with Moscow for weapons deliveries.

Assad also minimised the death toll for the civil war that has raged in his country since 2011, which has killed more than 320,000 people.

He said that merely "tens of thousands" had been killed in the conflict, accusing the West of overblowing the death toll.

"These (figures) are only given to inflate numbers in order to show how terrible the situation is and use this as a humanitarian excuse for the invasion of Syria," he said.

The evacuations mark the end of the first stage of a deal brokered by regime ally Iran and Qatar. Qatar and Turkey have long had ties with Syria rebel groups.

The release of the Qatari hunters follows a similar pattern to that in 2015 of 18 Turkish workers, who were freed as part of a deal that also saw the lifting of sieges on Shiite villages in northern Syria.

 

UN Security Council warns against holding Iraqi Kurd vote

Syria Kurds vote to cement federal push

Rouhani vows Iran will boost missiles despite US criticism

Yemen leader promises UN to open entire country to aid

Gemstone purchase essential for Najaf pilgrims

Saudi cleric banned for saying women have ‘quarter’ brain

Veteran Syrian activist, daughter assassinated in Istanbul

Tunisia drops forced anal exams for homosexuality

Bomb used in Saudi-led strike on Yemen children US-made

Police charge teenager over London Underground attack

Nigerian official to meet Turkish counterpart over illegal guns

Thousands feared trapped in Raqa as IS mounts last stand

Iraqi forces achieve first step in new offensive on IS

Migrant boat sinks off Turkish Black Sea coast leaving four dead, 20 missing

Trump praises 'friend' Erdogan

Russia clashes with EU over Syria

UN sets up probe of IS war crimes in Iraq

US, Iranian top diplomats confront each other for first time

Air strikes kill 22 civilians in northwest Syria in 48 hours

Iranian supreme leader lashes out at Trump UN speech

Thousands of Huthi supporters mark 3 years since Sanaa takeover

Iraq attacks all remaining IS territory at once

Moscow accuses US of hitting Syrian regime forces

Turkey jails lawyers representing hunger striking teachers

Turkey, Iran and Iraq make joint threat against Kurd vote

Syrian Kurds to hold first local elections in federal push

Qatari expats lauded as statesmen by Arab critics

Shipwreck off Libyan coast leaves over 100 migrants missing

Will Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish state translate into action?

US ups the ante on Iraq Kurds

Macron: Iran nuclear deal no longer enough

Trump’s mind made up on Iran but refuses to divulge

Scores of Iraqis missing during war against ISIS

Netanyahu rejects calls for mixed gender worship at Western Wall

Russia accuses US of missile treaty breach

Iran TV translator mocked for watering down Trump speech

Saudi Arabia hopes Kurdish referendum will not take place

Saudi invites women to sports stadium for first time

Saudi set to create $2.7 billion investment company

Humanitarian disaster grips Yemen three years since Houthi takeover

What will become of Iraq’s Hawija after ISIS?

Multi-ethnic Kirkuk tense ahead of referendum

UN awaits Iran’s defence against Trump nuclear deal threats

US-backed SDF seizes 90% of Syria's Raqa

Man hanged in Iran for rape, murder of child