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Taliban Releases U.S. Engineer In Prisoner Swap That Freed Drug Trafficker

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The Taliban said that American Mark Frerichs (left) had been released in exchange for Haji Bashir Noorzai, who had been held for decades in U.S. custody after facing drug charges. (combo image)

The Taliban has released U.S. engineer Mark Frerichs in exchange for Washington freeing a senior Taliban figure convicted of drug trafficking.

U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed in a statement on September 19 the release of Frerichs, a U.S. Navy veteran who was abducted in January 2020 while working as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan.

An unnamed senior administration official said earlier that Biden had granted clemency to Taliban figure Haji Bashir Noorzai in exchange for the release of Frerichs.

Noorzai, who spent 17 years in U.S. government custody, was a financial supporter of the Taliban during its first period in power in the 1990s.

He was arrested in 2005 and charged with smuggling more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States.

U.S. prosecutors accused him of owning opium fields in Kandahar Province and said he relied on a network of distributors who sold the heroin in New York.

When he was sentenced to life in prison in 2009, the top federal prosecutor said Noorzai's "worldwide narcotics network supported a Taliban regime that made Afghanistan a breeding ground for international terrorism."

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said the U.S. government had now determined that Noorzai's release would "not materially change any risk to Americans or fundamentally alter the contours of the drug trade there."

Officials also took into account that Noorzai had spent 17 years in prison.

Biden said bringing the negotiations that led to Frerichs' release to a resolution required difficult decisions, which he said he "did not take lightly."

The release of Frerichs, 60, was "the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated public servants across our government and other partner governments," Biden said, and he thanked them for their efforts.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Frerichs' release was "the result of intense [U.S.] engagement with the Taliban."

Acting Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told journalists at a news conference in Kabul that Frerichs was exchanged at Kabul Airport early on September 19 in return for Noorzai.

"Today, Mark Frerichs was handed over to the United States and Haji Bashir was handed over to us at Kabul airport," Muttaqi said.

After his release, Noorzai was welcomed at Kabul airport by Taliban forces with flowers.

At a press conference, Noorzai expressed gratitude at seeing his "mujahedin brothers" and said he prayed for more success of the Taliban.

"I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America, because an American was released and I am also free now," Noorzai said.

Frerichs was accompanied by the U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs to Doha, Qatar, and was in stable health, a U.S. official said. A Qatari Foreign Ministry official said Frerichs was to depart Doha for the United States, though his exact destination was not clear.

A statement from Frerichs' sister, Charlene Cakora, said she was happy to hear that her brother was safe and on his way home.

"Our family has prayed for this each day of the more than 31 months he has been a hostage. We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us," Cakora said.

Biden said the United States "continues to prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, and we will not stop until they are reunited with their families."

This includes work to free Americans held in Burma, Haiti, Russia, Venezuela, and elsewhere, Biden acknowledged in the statement.

The exchange took place five months after a deal with Russia that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed and raised hope that a deal can be reached to bring home Women's National Basketball Association star Brittney Griner and corporate security executive Paul Whelan, who are both being held in Russia.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
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