In December 2015, around a hundred gunmen swooped into a hunting camp in the early hours of the morning and abducted 28 hostages, including members of the Qatari royal family. No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the abduction, though it was believed that Iranian-backed militia – possibly linked to Hadi Al- Amir and the Badr Organisation – were involved.

A massive manhunt was launched to try to find the hostages. Within a month, five men were arrested and two hostages were released, leaving 26 remaining in captivity. Last week those hostages were released following extensive and complicated negotiations.

It would appear that the hostages were used as leverage to arrange a population swap in Syria. The populations of two Sunni towns – Zabadani and Madaya, near Lebanon in the south – and two Shia towns – Fua and Kefraya in the north – have been relocated as an attempt to engineer the shifting demographics of the bloody civil war.

In addition, some outlets have reported that a very large ransom was paid – possibly millions of dollars.

Would highly recommend reading the two Guardian articles below.

From Reuters

Hunting party held hostage in Iraq since 2015 freed

Twenty-six hostages, including members of Qatar’s ruling royal family, were freed on Friday after being kidnapped and held for 16 months in Iraq, Iraq’s interior ministry said on Friday.

The men had been handed over to a Qatari delegation and left for Doha, capital of the wealthy Gulf Arab state, a ministry spokesman said in a statement. It gave no more details.

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From NBC Bay Area

26 Hostages, Including Qatar Royals, Freed in Bargain

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.

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From Al Monitor

Complex deal frees kidnapped Qatari royals, two Saudis

However, Interior Ministry spokesman Wahab al-Tai told Al-Monitor that Iraq was “the only and exclusive authority handling this case with Qatar.” Regarding the government’s role in this operation, Tai said that “the idea of a political deal in this case is not true at all.”

“This was a blackmail plot by organized crime gangs seeking to obtain money. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of $700 million, but the official security services under the guidance of the government thwarted the attempt,” he said.

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From the National

Members of Qatari ruling family among hostages freed after being held since 2015 in Iraq

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.

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From the Guardian

Qatari royals released from captivity as part of Syria population swap deal

The royals, many of them cousins of Qatar’s emir, were handed over to the Iraqi interior minister on Friday by the powerful Keta’eb Hezbollah group, which seized the royals during a December 2015 hunting trip in the deserts of southern Iraq.

The fate of the Qataris had increasingly been tied up with that of two Shia villages west of Aleppo and two Sunni towns near the Lebanese border, whose populations had been part of delicate negotiations for the past year. On Friday evacuations from the four communities were continuing.

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From Voice of America

Qatari Hunters Kidnapped in Iraq Freed After Complex Regional Deal

[The deal] reportedly included an agreement to evacuate people and rebels from Madaya and Zabadani, predominantly Sunni towns in northwest Syria that have been besieged since June 2015 by the Syrian army and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

In return, people in the villages of Foah and Kefraya, most of whom are Shi’ites, were allowed safe passage. Residents have been encircled by rebels and al-Qaida-linked Sunni jihadists since March 2015.

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From France24

How ransoms, Syria deals secured Qatari hostage releases

A person involved in the negotiations told the AP that 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-Qaida-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 Idlib province, seizing it from government control in 2015 and laying siege to two pro-government villages now being evacuated.

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From the Guardian –

Qatari jet sits on tarmac in Baghdad as royal hostages await release

Qatari officials arrived in the Iraqi capital on Saturday with large bags they refused to allow to be searched. Senior Iraqi officials said they believed the bags to be carrying millions of dollars in ransom money, to be paid to the Iraqi militia holding the royals, Keta’eb Hezbollah, and two Syrian groups who had agreed to secure the Shia leg of the swap, the al-Qaida inspired Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham.

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