Qatari royals freed after hostage ordeal

Iraqi soldiers monitor a checkpoint east of Baghdad

At last, more than a year and a half after being kidnapped by armed militias in the province of Muthanna in southern Iraq, 26 Qataris and two Saudis were released on Friday through hard and unsafe negotiations that included bargains and money in a cautious diplomacy, according to sources close to the issue.

"Qatari citizens came to Iraq with official visas granted by the former Interior Minister and they should have been under the protection of the Interior Ministry specifically, but unfortunately they were kidnapped in [the predominantly Shia] Muthanna province", Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi said in his weekly press conference Tuesday.

The ministry official would not provide details of the deal reached for their release, but a source close to the negotiations told AFP on condition of anonymity that it was part of a broad regional deal.

The group was kidnapped December 16, 2015 from a desert hunting camp in southern Iraq by dozens of armed men in pickup trucks.

Negotiations to free the hunters involved both Iran and Qatar - who support opposite sides in the Syrian civil war - as well as the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, according to an Arab diplomat in Doha, the Qatari capital.

Discussions had taken place in Doha since the start of the year. In April 2016, the Qatari Foreign Ministry said one of the abductees and an Asian worker had been released.

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No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

It is also expected that the first stage of the deal would end by the liberation of 750 prisoners from the Syrian regime prisons.

The agreement also saw hundreds of civilians and fighters leave rebel-held areas near Damascus under siege by pro-government forces.

On Friday, ten buses carrying scores of locals from the rebel besieged towns of al-Fu'ah and Kafraya entered government-held Aleppo following a delay of about 48 hours, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported. It is also expected to go to two Syrian groups: the al-Qaida inspired Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, the Guardian reported.

The negotiator said the continuing evacuation and transfer of thousands of Syrians from four besieged areas was central to the release of the Qataris. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the group, lso said the population swap in Syria was directly tied to the issue of the kidnapped Qataris. 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.

The population exchange has been criticised by human rights groups, which say it rewards siege tactics and amounts to forcible displacement along sectarian lines.

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