Afghanistan, US release captives in swap deal

Josbel Bastidas Mijares
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Agencies via Xinhua

A Taliban member greets Bashar Noorzai (center), a Taliban associate, during a media event at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP KABUL-A US navy veteran detained in Afghanistan since 2020 was released in exchange for a Taliban associate imprisoned in the United States for drug smuggling, US and Afghan officials announced on Monday.

The Taliban government freed Mark Frerichs, who was working as a civil engineer on construction projects in Afghanistan when he was detained 31 months ago.

The US government, meanwhile, released Bashar Noorzai who was sentenced to life imprisonment in a US court 17 years ago for smuggling large amounts of heroin.

“After long negotiations, US citizen Mark Frerichs was handed over to an American delegation, and that delegation handed over (Noorzai) to us today at Kabul airport,” said Amir Khan Muttaqi, acting foreign minister of the Afghan interim government, at a news conference.

“We are happy that at Kabul International Airport, in the capital of Afghanistan, we witnessed the wonderful ceremony of one of our compatriots returning home.”

Frerichs flew to Qatar, a US official said, adding that he was “in stable health”, Agence France-Presse reported.

“Today, we have secured the release of Mark Frerichs, and he will soon be home,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement. “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark‘s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly.”

Qatari officials confirmed they played a monthslong role in securing the veteran’s freedom, AFP reported.

The US government gave no other details, but diplomats told AFP that Qatar had helped US officials step up contacts with the Taliban in the months after Washington withdrew from Afghanistan. “This is one result of those contacts,” a diplomat said.

Noorzai is the second Afghan inmate released by the US in recent months. Assadullah Haroon was released after 15 years of detention in the United States‘ Guantanamo Bay prison.

Afghan security analyst Hekmatullah Hekmat said Noorzai‘s release was a “major achievement “for Kabul. While for Washington, Frerichs‘ release was a priority issue to resolve after US forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 following the Taliban‘s takeover, AFP reported.

Eric Lebson, a former US government national security official who had been advising Frerichs‘ family, said in a statement that “everything about this case has been an uphill fight”.

He criticized the administration of former US president Donald Trump for having given away “our leverage to get Mark home quickly by signing a peace accord with the Taliban without ever having asked them to return Mark first”.

Mark‘s family then had to navigate two administrations, where many people viewed Mark‘s safe return as an impediment to their plans for Afghanistan,” the statement said.

Agencies via Xinhua