Twenty-six members of a Qatari royal hunting party, captured in Iraq more than a year ago, were part of the swap agreement recently reached in Syria, a report says.
A person briefed about the rescue operation told Middle East Eye online news portal that the royals were a “fundamental part of the swap deal”, refuting claims that Qatar’s role was for “purely humanitarian reasons”.
The Syrian government and militant groups struck a deal in March that envisaged the transfer of 16,000 people from Shia-majority Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the evacuation of militants and their families from al-Zabadani and Madaya towns in the southwestern province of Rif Dimashq.
According to the unnamed source, a Qatari plane was in Iraq’s Baghdad airport on Sunday awaiting completion of the agreement, said the portal which is often cited by The Guardian, The New York Times and the BBC News.
The Qatari hunting party, including members of the al-Thani ruling family, was detained in Iraq in December 2015 after they entered the country to capture falcons and hunt bustards.
Two of the members of the hunting party were freed last week as the agreement neared fruition.
The Guardian quoted sources close to the talks as saying that urgent efforts to secure the release of the remaining royals led to the Syria evacuation plan being finalized.
According to the newspaper, the group that captured the Qatari royals was understood to be Kata’eb Hezbollah, a popular resistance group fighting Daesh militants in Iraq.
Qatar is widely believed to be among the main supporters of Takfiri militants fighting in Syria and Iraq and has therefore drawn harsh criticisms.
West, Arab allies silent on Rashideen carnage
Nearly 126 people, including at least 68 children, lost their lives when a powerful bomb explosion struck near several buses carrying evacuees from Kefraya and Foua on Saturday as they waited to enter the city of Aleppo.
The blast hit the Rashideen district on the western outskirts of Aleppo as buses were stopping at a checkpoint on Saturday afternoon.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast which the government blamed on terrorists but the Ahrar al-Sham terrorist group is suspected to have carried out the bombing.
UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien condemned the bombing but there was no reaction from Western governments and their Arab allies which pounced on a suspicious chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun to level accusations against the Syrian government.
The US used the attack as a pretext to launch a missile strike against a Syrian air base near Homs from where the government targets terrorist positions.
While Damascus denied carrying out the chemical attack, Western televisions repeatedly showed choking children apparently under the influence of poison gas to accuse the Syrian government.
However, missing from their news bulletins were the scenes of carnage in Rashideen after the Saturday terrorist bombing.
The agreement is the latest in a string of evacuation deals, which the government of President Bashar Assad says are the best way to end the violence after more than six years of war.
Under the recent deal, residents of Foua and Kefraya were agreed to be transferred to the outskirts of Aleppo City, while the gunmen and their families would leave for Idlib City.
Over 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal, which began on Wednesday with an exchange of prisoners between militants and government forces.