Gunmen kidnap at least 26 Qatari nationals in Iraqi desert: officials

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - About 100 gunmen kidnapped at least 26 Qataris from their desert hunting camp in Iraq near the Saudi border in the early hours of Wednesday, the regional governor and police officials said.

Two police officers in Samawa confirmed the kidnappings and said Iraqi security forces had launched a wide-scale search for the Qataris in the area, a largely desolate expanse where armed militia groups predominate.

“An armed group driving dozens of pickup trucks kidnapped at least 26 Qatari hunters from their camp in the area of Busaya in the Samawa desert near the Saudi border,” Samawa governor Falih al-Zayady told Reuters.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the mass abduction. Hunters from various rich Gulf states often make trips to Iraq’s southern desert at this time of year.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said a group of its citizens were kidnapped in Iraq while on a hunting trip. It did not mention how many were in the group.

In a statement, the ministry said it was working with the Iraqi government to secure their release “as soon as possible”. It added that the hunters had entered Iraqi territory with an permit from Iraq’s Interior Ministry.

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A Samawa police colonel said the hunters had been escorted on their trip by an Iraqi security detail but that it decided not to engage a large number of gunmen.

“We are talking about at least 100 gunmen armed with light and medium weapons who broke into the Qatari camp and abducted the hunters at around 3 a.m. local time on Wednesday,” said the police colonel, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another police officer said initial information suggested that the gunmen managed to flee with their captives further north into the province of Nassiriya, 300 km (185 miles) south of the capital Baghdad.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry said police forces were conducting searches to find the kidnappers.

“The hunters were moving in a sprawling desert area and did not abide by Interior Ministry instructions of not leaving the secured areas towards unsecured ones,” it said in a statement.

Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Tom Finn in Doha; Editing by Alison Williams