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Qatar falcon-hunting royals freed in Iraq as part of Syria evacuation deals

After being held in Iraq for more than a year, 26 kidnapped Qataris have returned to Doha. Their release has been linked to the evacuation of Syrian civilians and fighters from four beseiged towns.

The 26 Qataris, including eleven members of the ruling Al Thani royal family, had gone on a falcon hunting trip at the end of 2015. They were kidnapped from a desert camp in Muthanna province, southern Iraq in mid December.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani greeted the men as they arrived in Doha on a private jet from Baghdad on Friday.

The 26 men had reportedly been held by the Iraqi Shiite militia Kataeb Hezbollah group, although it denied being behind the kidnapping. No other group publicly claimed responsibility for the abductions.

Complicated negotiations for the release of the group involved Iran, Iraq and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah among others including one linked to al-Qaeda.

Four besieged areas in Syria evacuated

The final deal included the evacuation and transfer of thousands of Syrians from four besieged areas:  two pro-government villages, Foua and Kfarya, which had been besieged by rebel fighters and two opposition held towns, Zabadani and Madaya, which were under government siege for joining the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syrien Anschlag bei Aleppo (Reuters/A. Abdullah )

People who were evacuated from Kefraya and Foua

A suicide bomber killed at least 130 people waiting to be transferred last week. One of  the consequences of the attack was that the release of the Qatari group was delayed until Friday.

The transfer of the Syrian civilians was also reported to be tied to another deal involving 750 political prisoners to be released by the Syrian government.

Qatar as negotiator

Qatar has forged a role as a mediator and a potential broker of deals in Syria's six-year conflict.

There have been suggestions that Qatar paid tens of millions of dollars to various factions which were involved in the movement of civilians in Syria, which were also completed on Friday.

Syrien Busse transportieren Flüchtlinge nach Jibrin (Getty Images/AFP/G. Ourfalian)

Buses transporting Syrian militants and their families leave Aleppo

The deal has been criticized in some quarters. David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that alleged payments to a group with ties to al-Qaeda in the deal could create incentives for hostage taking in the future.

"This is going to confront the new (Trump) administration in Washington with a serious question," Weinberg said "Is the US administration going to push Qatar to ensure that it does not pay ransom to terrorist organizations in the future?" he asked.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with troops stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on Friday.

The US has its largest military base in the Middle East in Qatar where the regime is also a member of the US-led coalition fighting the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) group in Iraq and Syria.

jm/bw (Reuters, AP)

 

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