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US contractor freed by Taliban in swap for drug trafficker

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An American contractor held hostage in Afghanistan for more than two years has been released in exchange for a Taliban drug lord convicted in the United States, the White House said Monday, extremist groups seizing power. Since then, he has announced a rare success in talks between the United States and the Taliban. a little over a year ago

Navy veteran Mark Frericks, who spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a private contractor, was kidnapped in January 2020 and is believed to have been held since then by the Haqqani network with ties to the Taliban. He was traded for Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban associate convicted of heroin trafficking conspiracies, who served 17 years in prison until his release on Monday.

The exchange is one of the most significant prisoner exchanges to take place under the Biden administration and comes five months after the deal with Russia that brought Marine veteran Trevor Reed home. His case has received less public attention than those of other Americans detained abroad, including WNBA star Britney Griner and corporate security officer Paul Whelan, but both were detained in Russia. and their relatives met with President Joe Biden on Friday. The Frerichs deal was the result of months of quiet negotiations.

Those discussions gained new momentum in June when Biden agreed to bail Norsey out of a life sentence, giving him a chance to complete what one administration official described as “a very narrow window of opportunity this month.” I made preparations.

This undated photo provided to the AP shows Mark Frerichs, a US veteran and private contractor held in Afghanistan by the Taliban for more than two years. I’m saying Frericks’ release appeared to have been part of a swap, saying the imprisoned Taliban drug lord was released from American custody on Monday. (Charlene Cakora via AP)
(Charlene Kakora via AP))

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In a statement issued by the White House, Mr Biden said: “The successful settlement of Mr Mark’s free-flowing negotiations required difficult decisions that I did not take lightly.”

Frerichs, 60, was working on a civil engineering project when he was kidnapped in Kabul on January 31, 2020. He is believed to have been lured into a meeting to discuss a new project and then transported to Khorst, a base of his network with Taliban ties near the Pakistani border.

He was last seen in a video posted by The New Yorker last spring, in traditional Afghan clothing and begging for his release. The condition was stable, a US official said. His final destination was not immediately clear, but a Qatar foreign ministry official said Frerichs would soon be heading to the United States from Doha.

Frericks’ sister, who is from Lombard, Illinois, thanked U.S. authorities for helping her brother’s release.

“I am very happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home to us. We never gave up hope that he survived and survived. Please come back to us safely,” said his sister, Charlene Kakora.

When Noorzai was arrested in 2005, he didn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a presidential pardon. Named to the list of the world’s most prolific drug traffickers, he was accused in federal court in Manhattan of owning opium fields in Kandahar and relying on a network of distributors who sold heroin. indicted for the accused crimes. New York.

Prisoner Bashir Nourzai speaks during a release ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 19, 2022. 17 years and 6 months in a US prison. Taliban-appointed Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaki said Monday that the freed American, who appeared to have been part of a swap, was a Navy veteran and private contractor who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Prisoner Bashir Nourzai speaks during a release ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 19, 2022. 17 years and 6 months in a US prison. Taliban-appointed Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaki said Monday that the freed American, who appeared to have been part of a swap, was a Navy veteran and private contractor who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
(AP Photo/Ebrahim Norooj)

When he was sentenced to life in prison, the then-top federal prosecutor in Manhattan said Nourzai’s “global drug network aided the Taliban regime in making Afghanistan a hotbed of international terrorism.”

Monday’s deal underscored both sides’ stances on the Taliban’s approach to illegal drugs. In April they announced a ban on harvesting opium poppies to make heroin, an order that would also ban the manufacture and transport of drugs. During the rebellion, they reportedly made millions of dollars taxing farmers and middlemen who moved their drugs out of Afghanistan.

A senior government official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration, said the U.S. government now believes that Noorzai’s release “substantially changes the risks to Americans and drug trafficking there.” The authorities also took into account Noorzai’s 17 years in prison. They said negotiations made it clear that in order for Frerich to go home, he would have to be released.

At a press conference on Monday, Nourzai expressed gratitude for meeting his “mujahideen brothers” (a reference to the Taliban) in Kabul.

“I wish the Taliban more success,” he added. “Now that the American people have been freed and I am free, I hope this exchange will lead to peace between Afghanistan and America.”

Even before the occupation of Afghanistan last August, the Taliban demanded the United States release Noorzai in exchange for Hrurihis. But there has been little public indication that Washington is moving along its lines.

“Everything about this case has been an uphill battle,” Eric Revson, a former U.S. government national security officer who advised Frericks’ family, said in a statement. He criticized the Trump administration for abandoning “our power to bring Mark back home quickly by signing a peace deal with the Taliban without requiring the Taliban to return Mark first.”

“Mark’s family then had to go through two administrations and many saw Mark’s safe return as an obstacle to plans to return to Afghanistan,” the statement said.

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The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and its takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 raised further concerns that progress in negotiations could be undone or Frélich forgotten. But when he was told by his advisers last month that Biden had pressured officials to consider the risks posed to Hrurihis by the drone strike in Afghanistan that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawari, his name was called.

Taliban-appointed Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaki hailed Monday’s exchange as the beginning of a “new era” in US-Taliban relations and the opening of “new doors of dialogue.”

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U.S. officials were more cautious. Although the United States does not recognize the Taliban government, the United States has an interest in Afghanistan and will continue to engage with the Taliban to address the hunger and humanitarian crisis plaguing the country, administration officials said Monday.

But officials say they remain concerned about whether the Taliban are involved in the fight against terrorism and their exclusion of girls from high schools, a problem the United Nations denounced on Sunday.

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Faiz reported from Islamabad. His AP writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.

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The article amended a version earlier in the day that cited Taliban claims that Noorzai was detained at Guantanamo Bay. This claim has been rebutted by US authorities.

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