DOHA/BAGHDAD (REUTERS) - Twenty-six hostages, including members of Qatar's ruling royal family, were freed on Friday (April 21) after being kidnapped and held for 16 months in Iraq, Iraq's interior ministry said.
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.
In Riyadh, the Saudi foreign ministry said two of the group were Saudis, and thanked Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for his efforts to secure their release, Saudi state news agency SPA reported.
"They are all in good health and they all left the Iraqi capital this afternoon," the ministry said in a statement.
In December 2015, about 100 armed men seized a hunting party, including Qataris and other nationals, from a desert camp in southern Iraq. A Qatari royal and a Pakistani man were later freed.
The release of the remaining hostages comes days after a deal was announced for the evacuation of civilians and fighters from four besieged Syrian towns. Britain's Guardian newspaper said Qatar had helped mediate the deal in exchange for the freeing of the hunters.
The abduction led to months of negotiations between Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, according to an Arab diplomat in Doha.
Discussions about the Syria evacuations, involving Iranian officials and Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, were held in Qatar when Iran's foreign minister visited on March 8, according to the diplomat. Those discussions tied the deal to the freeing of the Qatari hostages, he said.
Qatari officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction of the hunters. They were seized in a largely desolate expanse of territory close to the Saudi border which is dominated by militias who work closely with neighbouring Shi'ite power Iran and have accused Doha of meddling in Iraq's affairs.
Some Iraqis, especially in the Shi'ite-majority south, are critical of Qatar's stance in the Syrian civil war and accuse it of complicity in the rise of Sunni Islamist militants.
Qatar, a member of the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), denies supporting extremist groups.
The Gulf Arab state had called on Iraq to take the lead in freeing the hostages, who had been granted permits by Baghdad to hunt in the area.
Iraq's interior ministry said the hunters had failed to heed government instructions to stay within secured areas.
Hunters from rich Gulf states travel to Iraq's desert in the winter months to buy falcons and hunt the rare houbara bustard, a bird whose meat is highly prized.