ABU DHABI // The UAE on Saturday welcomed the release of a mainly Qatari hunting party freed after a 16-month hostage ordeal in Iraq, saying such terrorism “feeds on chaos and instability”.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation congratulates the brotherly state of Qatar and expresses relief that their ordeal is over,” Dr Anwar bin Mohammed Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said, according to UAE state news agency Wam.
He expressed appreciation for the role played by Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi and the wider Iraqi government in securing the release of the 26 hunters, who were flown to Doha on Friday after being handed to Iraqi authorities.
Saudi media reported on Saturday that two Saudi citizens were among the party, which was previously thought to have only been made up of Qataris.
The Jeddah-based newspaper Okaz named the two Saudis as Salem bin Abdulhadi Al Merri and Mohammed Abdullah Al Merri and said they were expected to be flown home to the kingdom on Saturday.
The official Saudi Press Agency also began referring to the hunting party as “Qatari and Saudi” on Saturday but did not give further details.
The hunting party, which is believed to have included one or more prominent members of the Qatari royal family, were kidnapped in southern Iraq in December 2015.
There was never any formal claim of responsibility but the abduction was widely linked to Shiite militias with ties to Tehran.
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, a deal that Qatar co-sponsored with regime ally Iran late last month. The hostages’ release was delayed for several days due to an explosion a week ago that killed at least 130 people waiting to be transferred, most of them children and government supporters
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.
It also raised allegations that the country paid millions of dollars to an Al Qaeda-linked group to facilitate the population transfer in Syria that led to the hostages’ release in Iraq on Friday.
Qatar is home to Centcom’s regional headquarters and the largest US military base in the Middle East. It is also a member of the US-led coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
The hunting party was kidnapped on December 16, 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. They had legally entered Iraq to hunt inside the province of Muthanna, some 370 kilometres south-east of Baghdad. Shiite militias are active in that area and work closely with neighbouring Iran.
A person involved in the negotiations said 11 of the captives were members of Qatar’s Al Thani ruling family. He also said Qatar paid tens of millions of dollars to Shiite groups, and to the Al Qaeda-linked Levant Liberation Committee and Ahrar Al Sham, which are involved in the population transfers underway in Syria. Both groups were part of an armed opposition alliance that swept through Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, seizing it from government control in 2015 and laying siege to two pro-government villages now being evacuated.
The negotiator said the Qatari group was being held by Iraqi Shiite militia Kata’eb Hizbollah. The group officially denies it was behind the kidnapping, however.
* With reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press