BAGHDAD (AP) - Twenty-six hostages, including members of Qatar's ruling family, were released on Friday after 16 months in captivity in Iraq, two Iraqi officials said, in what had become one of the region's most complex hostage negotiations.
The two - a government and a security official - told The Associated Press the hostages were released into the custody of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
The abduction sparked more than a year of negotiations between Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, resulting in millions of dollars in payments to Sunni and Shiite factions, according to Iraqi officials.
The group, which includes members of Qatar's ruling Al Thani family and also other nationals, was kidnapped in December 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. They apparently had permits to hunt in that area inside Muthanna province, some 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Shiite militias are active in that area and work closely with the neighboring Shiite power Iran. No group claimed responsibility for the abduction, though local Arabic media frequently cited suspicions that it was the Iraqi Shiite group Kata'eb Hezbollah. The group denies it was behind the kidnapping.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi confirmed earlier this week that a Qatari delegation was in the country to help with the group's release. The nationalities of the other hostages in the group have not been made public.
Qatari officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In April 2016, the Qatari Foreign Ministry said one of the hunters and an Asian worker on the trip had been freed.
Another Iraqi security official, also speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations, said the group would leave Baghdad later on Friday.
Associated Press Writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.