Qatar royal and companion freed by kidnappers in Iraq

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe kidnappers targeted a hunt for the rare Asian houbara bustard

A Qatari royal family member and a Pakistani have been freed by kidnappers in Iraq after nearly four months, the Qatari foreign ministry says.

The pair were among at least 28 people abducted from a desert hunting party close to the Saudi border in December.

Efforts are still under way to free the rest of the 26 kidnapped, the ministry said in a statement.

It is not known if any ransom was paid for the release of the two men who were freed on Wednesday.

The hostages were abducted when gunmen attacked their camp, officials say. The attackers were driving dozens of four-wheel drive vehicles when they swept into the camp at dawn.

They struck near Layyah, 190km (118 miles) from the regional capital, Samawa. The remote area is highly tribal in nature and a Shia region.

Nine members of the party managed to escape and cross into nearby Kuwait.

The Shia Muslim political parties which dominate the Iraqi government are highly critical of Qatar's role in supporting Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria

The hunting party was in Iraq on an officially licensed expedition and Doha has put pressure on the Shia-led government in Baghdad to help secure the hostages' release.

The hunters' prey was the Asian houbara bustard, akin to a small turkey. To find it and other similar species, Gulf hunters often travel to Morocco, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

They take with them their prized falcons, typically peregrines, sakers and lanners, which are expertly trained to home in on their quarry at high speed.

Other Gulf hunting expeditions have even extended as far as the Central African Republic in search of big game.

More than 12 years after the US-led invasion and occupation, Iraq is still plagued by violent crime and militant attacks.

The Asian houbara bustard

image copyrightAzmatullah
image captionThe Houbara bustard, also known as the Asian Houbara, is prized by hunters in the Middle East

Falconry was an important skill for Bedouin hunters in the harsh deserts of Arabia and Syria, and has been around for thousands of years.

But the Asian houbara bustard (or MacQueen's bustard) - a likely target of the kidnapped hunters - only came to prominence as a favoured prey in the 1970s, when lavish hunting trips became popular, and when the availability of four-wheel-drives and guns prompted a sudden decline in the species, which is now threatened.

The bird's popularity may be partly explained by its elegant plumage and because some consider its meat to be an aphrodisiac.

Arabs' pursuit of the Asian houbara has caused tension elsewhere. There has been growing hostility in Pakistan, where Gulf Arab hunting parties are granted permission to bring in falcons to hunt the Asian houbara despite a ban on locals hunting.

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