Baghdad: Qatar has secured the release of 26 hostages after nearly a year and a half in captivity, including members of its ruling family, in what became possibly the region's most complex and sensitive hostage negotiation deal in recent years.
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.
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 this time involving members of the Gulf Arab state's ruling family.
It also raised allegations that the tiny energy rich nation paid millions of dollars to an al-Qaida-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 is where the US has its largest military base in the Middle East.
It is also a member of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
The incident was sparked when the group was kidnapped Dec. 16, 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. They had legally entered Iraq to hunt inside Muthanna province, some 370 kilometers southeast of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Shiite militias are active in that area and work closely with the neighboring Shiite power Iran.
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.