BAGHDAD - A Qatari hunting party kidnapped in southern Iraq in 2015 has been freed and was being handed over to a Qatari delegation in Baghdad on Friday, a senior interior ministry official said.
Sources close to the negotiations said their release was part of a far-reaching regional deal involving the release of prisoners and the evacuation of civilians in neighbouring Syria.
"The interior ministry has received the Qatari hunters, all 26 of them," the minister's adviser, Wahab al-Taee, said. "They will be handed over to the Qatari envoy."
He said the hunters were currently in Baghdad undergoing identity checks by Iraqi officials and would be handed over to a Qatari delegation that has been waiting for them in the capital since last week.
The group of hunters, believed to include one or several prominent members of the Qatari royal family, were kidnapped in mid-December 2015 during a hunting trip in southern Iraq.
Very little information had surfaced since their kidnapping as to their whereabouts or condition.
The ministry adviser would not provide details of the terms of their release but a source close to the negotiations said on condition of anonymity that it was part of a broad regional deal.
"The Qataris are now in (Prime Minister) Haider al-Abadi's office following a deal between Jabhat al-Nusra and the kidnappers," the source said, referring to the former Al-Qaeda affiliate now known as Fateh al-Sham Front.
There was never any claim for the kidnapping of the hunters who were seized in a Shiite area of Iraq and widely believed to have been nabbed by militias with close ties to Tehran.
The source said the deal included the evacuation of thousands of people from the northern Syrian villages of Fuaa and Kafraya, which are government-controlled but have been besieged by rebels.
- Syria deal -
The evacuations were under way on Friday, with hundreds being taken to Aleppo, which has been under full government control since late last year.
The evacuees were forced to spend two nights in their buses at a marshalling area after last-minute disagreement over the release of prisoners held by President Bashar al-Assad's government.
The evacuations began last week but were delayed after a suicide car bombing killed 126 people, 68 of them children, at the transit point in Rashidin on April 15.
Assad on Friday blamed Nusra for the bombing in an interview with Russia's RIA Novosti news agency.
"It was Jabhat al-Nusra, they haven't hidden it from the very start, and I think that everyone agrees that it was Nusra," Assad said, referring to the jihadist group now known as the Fateh al-Sham Front that has supposedly severed its ties with al-Qaeda.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, one of the deadliest episodes since the start of Syria's six-year civil war.
In the interview translated into Russian, Assad denied there had been a chemical attack this month in the town of Khan Sheikhun, claiming there was "100 percent" certainty that rebels had obtained chemical weapons from Turkey.
"The only route for terrorists to receive money, weapons and any kind of materials, new recruits or such substances goes through Turkey," he said.
Assad added that Damascus had lost "more than 50 percent" of its air defence systems and that Syria was in talks with Moscow for weapons deliveries.
Assad also minimised the death toll for the civil war that has raged in his country since 2011, which has killed more than 320,000 people.
He said that merely "tens of thousands" had been killed in the conflict, accusing the West of overblowing the death toll.
"These (figures) are only given to inflate numbers in order to show how terrible the situation is and use this as a humanitarian excuse for the invasion of Syria," he said.
The evacuations mark the end of the first stage of a deal brokered by regime ally Iran and Qatar. Qatar and Turkey have long had ties with Syria rebel groups.
The release of the Qatari hunters follows a similar pattern to that in 2015 of 18 Turkish workers, who were freed as part of a deal that also saw the lifting of sieges on Shiite villages in northern Syria.