Biden says ‘difficult decisions’ made in prisoner exchange with Taliban

A senior Biden administration official told reporters on Monday that the US president decided in June to grant clemency to Noorzai if that meant Frerichs would be freed.

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US President Joe Biden confirmed the release of Navy veteran Mark Frerichs from Taliban captivity on Monday, saying that it required “difficult decisions.”

According to a senior Biden administration official, the American engineer appears to be in stable health after an initial assessment.

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Frerichs was taken in Afghanistan in January 2020 and held for 31 months. The US urged the Taliban to release Frerichs, including after the chaotic withdrawal ordered by Biden last summer.

To secure his release, the US had to free senior Taliban figure Haji Bashir Noorzai, who had been in prison since 2005 for drug charges.

The Biden administration official told reporters on Monday that the US president decided in June to grant clemency to Noorzai if that meant Frerichs would be freed.

But after this decision was made, the president ordered a strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in late July.

Speaking in a phone call, the official said the US informed the Taliban after the strike that it would hold the group “directly responsible” if any harm came to Frerichs and that the best way the Taliban could begin to rebuild trust with the US and the world was to release Frerichs immediately.

The official singled out Qatar for its help in securing the release of the US engineer.

A second US official spoke about what the release of Frerich’s would mean for Washington’s broader engagement with the Taliban. “We will continue to make clear that taking hostages is the activity of terrorist and criminal groups, and if the Taliban are as interested as they say they are in normal relations with the international community, then that practice must resolutely end,” said the official, who like the first, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Biden said there was “much more work to do in many other cases.”

For his part, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration would never waver for the Americans who were held captive abroad. “We will remain tireless in our efforts to seek the release of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained,” Blinken said in a statement.

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