At least 26 Qatari hunters have been captured in the southern Iraqi desert near Saudi Arabia during a hunting trip, according to officials.
The group of Qataris wasn’t following government-prescribed safety protocols and had wandered to al-Muthana, an unsecured area on the border of Saudi Arabia, Iraqi officials said. Unidentified militants raided their camp in four-wheel drive vehicles at dawn on Wednesday, abducting 26 men and leaving a few behind. No group has claimed responsibility yet, though a large-scale search is being conducted.
“Those hunters were moving on large scale in the desert without committing to the Ministry of Interior measures of not crossing to specific areas which aren’t secured,” a ministry statement said.
Qatar’s foreign ministry released a statement that it was working with Iraq’s government “at the highest security and political levels … to find out the details of the Qatari citizens’ abduction and work on their release as soon as possible.”
Iraq’s southern provinces are known to be home to Shiite Muslim militias backed by Iran. Some such militias have played major roles in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. But the kidnappings have risen significantly over the past year.
Last September, a Shiite militia group abducted 18 Turkish construction workers at a construction site on the outskirts of Baghdad. The kidnappers demanded that Turkey stop allowing militants to flow from Turkey to Iraq, and also to return allegedly stolen petroleum from Iraq's Kurdistan region. They also demanded Turkish authorities direct Syrian rebels to allow humanitarian aid into four Shiite towns in Syria that were under siege. The Turkish construction workers were released nearly a month later.
Iraq’s interior ministry claims the abduction of the Qatari hunters was meant to “achieve political and media goals,” while other officials have suggested that the abductions are likely meant to deter tourists from venturing into the area.
Many wealthy citizens from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq hunt with falcons in Iraq, where wild game cannot be found elsewhere, and where there are no bag limits or conservation measures.
“We consider such acts’ purpose is to spoil our reputation and to show that southern Iraq isn’t secured which isn’t correct,” the Ministry of Interior said in a statement.
Qatar immediately announced it was sending high-level officials to the area to work on the release of the citizens. Qatar is often accused by Iraq as being a supporter of Sunni militant groups, including the Islamic State, which has captured land in Iraq and Syria, but Qatar has denied these claims.