Qatari men who were kidnapped while hunting in southern Iraq in 2015 boarding a plane at Baghdad airport following their release.
Baghdad - The complexity of the talks highlights Qatar's role as an experienced and shrewd facilitator in hostage negotiations .
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 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.
It also raised allegations that millions of dollars were paid 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 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 Daesh group in Iraq and Syria.
The incident was sparked when the group was kidnapped December 16, 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. They had legally entered Iraq to hunt inside Muthanna province, some 370km southeast of Baghdad. Shia militias are active in that area and work closely with Iran.
A person involved in the negotiations said that 11 of the captives were members of ruling family. He also claimed that millions of dollars were paid to Shia 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 Idlib province, seizing it from government control in 2015 and laying siege to two pro-government villages now being evacuated.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the negotiator said the Qatari group was being held by Iraqi Shia militia Kata'eb Hezbollah. The group officially denies it was behind the kidnapping.
The abduction of the Qatari group drew Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese group Hezbollah into negotiations, resulting in millions of dollars in payments to militant factions, according to Iraqi officials and a person involved in the negotiations. They say the talks took place in Beirut.
The negotiator said the ongoing evacuation and transfer of thousands of Syrians from four besieged areas was central to the release of the Qataris. The two pro-government villages, Foua and Kfarya, had been besieged by rebel fighters and under a steady barrage of rockets and mortars for years. The two opposition-held towns, Zabadani and Madaya, were under government siege for joining the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The opposition-run Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the transfer included 800 armed men from both sides. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the group, said that the population swap in Syria was directly tied to the issue of the kidnapped Qataris.
Abdurrahman said the Qataris first proposed bringing the fate of the hunting group into the talks about the besieged four areas in Syria. The population exchange has been criticised by rights groups, which say it rewards siege tactics and amounts to forcible displacement along sectarian lines.
Iraqi Interior Ministry official Wahhab Al Taie said the hostages had been released into the custody of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. The group departed on Friday on a private Qatari jet from Baghdad.
Qatar's state TV showed the arrival of the group from Iraq. A statement published on the Qatar News Agency said the 26 Qatari citizens had arrived in Doha after being kidnapped in Iraq while they were on a hunting trip.
Most complex deal in recent years
> Qataris were kidnapped in December 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq.
> They entered Iraq legally to hunt inside Muthanna province, about 370km southeast of Baghdad.
> 11 of the captives were members of ruling family.
> A deal was struck for release of Qataris and evacuation of civilians in Syria.
> The deal was delayed due to an explosion that killed at least 130 people.
> There were allegations that a huge amount was paid to an Al Qaeda-linked group to facilitate the population transfer in Syria that led to the hostages' release in Iraq.