DOHA/BAGHDAD, April 21 (Reuters) - Twenty-six hostages, including Qatar ruling family members, were freed on Friday after being held for 16 months by unidentified gunmen in Iraq, Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera reported.
Al Jazeera said the men were freed and handed over to Iraq's interior ministry but gave no further details on the release of the hostages, who were seized in December 2015 while on a hunting trip near the border with Saudi Arabia.
An Iraqi security official said Iraq was verifying the identity of the men and would hand them over to Qatar's ambassador to Baghdad.
About 100 armed men seized the group of Qatari hunters, which included royal family members and also other nationals, from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. A Qatari royal and a Pakistani man were later freed.
The release of the remaining hostages comes days after a deal was announced in Syria for the evacuation of Syrian civilians and fighters from four besieged towns, which British newspaper the Guardian reported Qatar had helped mediate in exchange for the freeing of the hunters.
The abduction ignited months of negotiations between Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, according to an Arab diplomat in Doha.
Discussions about the Syria evacuations involving Iranian officials and Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham were held in Qatar when Iran's foreign minister visited on March 8, according to the diplomat. Those discussions tied the deal to the freeing of the Qatari hostages, he said.
Qatari officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction of the hunters, who were seized in a largely desolate expanse of territory dominated by militias who work closely with the neighbouring Shi'ite power Iran and have accused Doha of meddling in Iraq's affairs.
There is hostility in Iraq, especially in the Shi'ite-majority south, towards Qatar's stance on the Syrian civil war and perceptions that it is complicit in the rise of Islamist militants.
Qatar, which is a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting militants in Iraq and Syria, denies supporting extremist groups.
The Gulf Arab state had called on Iraq to take the lead in freeing the hostages since Baghdad had granted them permits to hunt there.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said the hunters had failed to heed government instructions to stay within secured areas of the desert.
Hunters from rich Gulf states often make trips to Iraq's desert in the winter months to buy falcons and hunt the Houbara bustard, a rare bird whose meat is prized by Arab sheikhs.
(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli in Baghdad and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Tom Finn; Editing by Hugh Lawson) ((Sami.Aboudi@thomsonreuters.com; +97143918301;))