BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for the release of a group of Qatari hunters kidnapped in the south of the country, his representative said on Friday. A large group of unidentified armed men abducted at least 26 Qataris from their camp in the desert near the Saudi border this month. At least nine people who were part of the hunting group managed to escape and crossed into Kuwait.
"We demand that all kidnapped people be released no matter who they are," Ahmed al-Safi said in a sermon in the holy Shi'ite city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, broadcast on state TV.
"We condemn the kidnappings for political goals, including the recent kidnapping of a number of hunters who entered the country legally," he said.Iraq's foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari denied on Tuesday that his government had anything to do with the kidnapping.
Hunters from rich Gulf states often make trips to Iraq's southern desert at this time of year in search of rare prey. The Houbara bustard, a large, fast bird, which lives throughout the Middle East has been hunted to the point of extinction in Qatar.
The Iraqi desert is said to be one of the best remaining hunting grounds for the bird.
Reporting by Saif Hameed; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Louise Ireland