Iraq holding Qatar hunting party's ransom money: PM

"The referendum is rejected, whether today or in the future, in the Kurdistan region within the 2003 borders or in the disputed areas," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said (AFP Photo/SABAH ARAR)

Baghdad (AFP) - Iraq is holding hundreds of millions of dollars Qatari negotiators had brought to Baghdad as ransom money for the release of kidnapped hunters, the prime minister said Tuesday.

A hunting party consisting of 24 Qataris and two Saudis kidnapped in southern Iraq in December 2015 was released last week and flew back home from Baghdad on Friday, according to officials in the three countries.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told a news conference that Qatari negotiators had come to Baghdad prior to the release with what he said was hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom money.

"The Qatari government sent its envoy to Iraq and asked to bring a private plane," Abadi said.

"We were surprised that there were big bags, so we seized them and they contained hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.

"This money was brought in without the approval of the Iraqi government. We have a central bank and a judiciary," he said, explaining he would insist due process be followed.

"Hundreds of millions to armed groups? Is this acceptable," Abadi asked, without specifying to which groups he was referring.

The hunting party was released without word from the Iraqi interior ministry or any other official on who had kidnapped them in the first place nor what the terms of their release were.

Sources close to the negotiations however told AFP that their release was part of a broad regional deal between Iran and Qatar involving the evacuation of residents from government-controlled villages in northern Syria.

Qatar has long been thought to have sway on some Sunni rebel groups in Syria, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front that besieged the villages.

The same sources said ransom money and prisoner exchanges were also part of the deal.

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