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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Qatar foreign minister, ambassador at heart of $1bn hostage deal with terrorists

Leaked texts indicate the involvement of the senior officials in the biggest hostage payment in history

A file photo of the commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani. AFP
A file photo of the commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani. AFP

A Qatari ambassador and the country’s foreign minister coordinated to secure the release of 28 members of a royal hunting party, which included paying hundreds of millions of dollars to terrorist groups and displacing the citizens of Syrian towns.

Leaked messages between Qatar’s envoy to Iraq, Zayed Al Khayareen, and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, show long conversations between them over logistics of the deal, called the most expensive ransom ever paid.

On December 16, 2015, a royal hunting expedition were kidnapped by Iranian-backed militiamen from Kataib Hezbollah in the southern Iraqi desert.

Negotiations to free the party involved Iranian spymaster Qassem Soleimani, who leads the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and is sanctioned by the EU and US.

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Reporting by the BBC, The Washington Post and The New York Times has indicated that Qatar paid more than $1 billion to Iranian officials, Kataib Hezbollah – who were behind attacks on US troops in Iraq – and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The release of the royals, that included Mr Al Thani’s cousin and an uncle, also revolved around a deal to transfer the people of Syrian villages that was dubbed the four-towns agreement.

The messages indicate Kataib Hezbollah was driven by money but Mr Soleimani insisted on the Qataris securing the four towns deal by using their influence with Syrian militias who were funded and supplied by Doha.

“The Syrian, Hezbollah Lebanon and Kataeb Hezbollah Iraq, all want money and this is their chance,” Mr Al Khayareen texted Sheikh Mohammed.

The messages also indicate that intermediaries negotiating the release demanded lavish payment. A Kataib Hezbollah negotiator demanded $10 million for his services.

“To motivate him, I also told him I am willing to buy him an apartment in Lebanon,” the ambassador texted.

The foreign minister was approached by two Iraqi mediators who asked for five Rolex watches and $150,000.

“You need to be ready with $$$$,” Mr Al Khayareen texted in one exchange.

The last mention in the exchanges of a $1bn ransom was in January last year, along with another figure, $150m.

Qatari officials have accepted that the texts and voicemails are genuine.

The hostage crisis ended in April last year. Qatari officials admit that a large sum of cash was sent to Baghdad but claim it was for the Iraqi government, not terrorists.

Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi later said he had taken control of the cash.

The New York Times reports suggest the first payment of nearly $500m seized at Baghdad airport. They say another $500m was sent through Beirut via Hezbollah.

Despite the initial money not appearing to have reached the group holding the royals, the release was made.