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Up to 26 Qatari falcon hunters abducted by gunmen in Iraq

Gunmen have abducted up to 26 Qataris after raiding a camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq.

The men raided the camp located in the desert in Samawah province at dawn on Wednesday, snatching between 19 and 26 Qataris, according to provincial council member Ahmed Manfi.

Two Iraqi intelligence officers were also abducted but were later released, he added.

Iraq's interior ministry said the aim of the abduction was "to achieve political and media goals". A ministry statement said police were carrying out search operations in the area.

Qatar's foreign ministry said it has contacted the "Iraqi government and concerned entities at the highest security and political levels" to ascertain details of what happened and to try to secure the hunters' release.

It added that the hunters entered Iraq on an official permit from the Iraqi interior ministry and in co-ordination with the Iraqi Embassy in Doha.

It did not specify how many were abducted or provide details on their identities.

Qatari foreign minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah spoke with his Iraqi counterpart by phone about the matter.

Samawah is located on the Euphrates River, about 370 kilometres (230 miles) south-east of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Hunters from Gulf states, mainly Qatar, often visit Iraq's vast western and southern desert areas for hunting and purchasing falcons.

Iraqi authorities approve the expeditions and provide protective forces that accompany the hunters.

Qatar is seen by Iraqis as a main supporter of Sunni militant groups, mainly Islamic State, which has captured large swaths of land in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

However, Qatar denies supporting extremist groups, including IS, and is part of the US-led coalition battling the group.

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