Afghanistan

The US confirms prisoner swap with Taliban

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The US on Monday confirmed the release of American engineer Mark Frerichs in exchange for senior Taliban figure Haji Bashir Noorzai, a senior Biden administration official said on Monday.

Biden granted clemency to Noorzai after he spent 17 years in US government custody, the official said.

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Taliban’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqihad announced earlier Monday that Frerichs was released in exchange for Noorzai, who the US had held on drugs charges since 2005.

Frerichs was exchanged at the airport in the capital, Kabul, with Bashir Noorzai, Muttaqi told a news conference in the city.

Noorzai was detained by the US on suspicion of smuggling more than $50 million worth of heroin into the US and Europe.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is ready to solve problems by negotiation with all including the United States,” Muttaqi said, referring to the Taliban.

Frerichs is an engineer and US Navy veteran from Lombard, Illinois, who worked in Afghanistan for a decade on development projects. He was abducted in February 2020.

The US has been pushing for the release of Frerichs, including after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, as US-led foreign forces were withdrawing.

US officials have said his case would influence their view on the legitimacy of a Taliban-led government. No foreign government has formally recognized the Taliban, in part due to the group’s restriction of most girls from education.

Noorzai briefly addressed the news conference at a Kabul hotel, alongside Muttaqi and the Taliban’s acting deputy prime ministers.

“I am proud to be in the capital of my country among my brothers,” he said.

The tribal leader had longstanding ties to the Taliban.

Noorzai’s lawyer had denied his client was a drug dealer and argued the charges should be dismissed because US government officials duped him into believing he would not be arrested.

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