Taliban releases US navy veteran in prisoner swap

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The Taliban and the United States have completed a prisoner swap, Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister says, with an American navy veteran traded for a key associate of the Afghan rulers.

Amir Khan Muttaqi on Monday said Mark Frerichs – kidnapped in 2020 – was exchanged for Bashir Noorzai, a notorious druglord and member of the Taliban who told reporters in Kabul on Monday that he had spent 17 years and six months in US captivity before being released.

“Today, Mark Frerichs was handed over to the US and Haji Bashir was handed over to us at Kabul airport,” Muttaqi told reporters in Kabul. He said the exchange happened “after long negotiations”, adding that Frerichs was given to a US delegation.

Frerichs was working in Afghanistan as a civil engineer on construction projects when he was kidnapped, the US State Department said.

He was last seen in a video earlier this year, pleading for his release so that he could reunite with his family, according to a recording posted by The New Yorker magazine at the time. In the video, Frerichs says it was filmed last November.

The US has confirmed Frerichs’s release, a senior Biden administration official said on Monday.

He appears to be in stable condition after his release, the official said.

President Joe Biden said he spoke to the engineer’s family and that he wants him to have a safe return to the US.

“Our priority now is to make sure Mark receives a healthy and safe return and is given the space and time he needs to transition back into society,” Biden said.

“We have much more work to do in many other cases, but Mark’s release demonstrates our enduring commitment.”

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

Muttaqi had told reporters that Noorzai was held at the infamous US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, but a senior Biden administration official sharply rebutted the suggestion.

US authorities determined that the release of Noorzai would not pose an increased risk to Americans or alter the nature of the drug trade, the official told reporters.

Afghan government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the AFP news agency Noorzai held no official position in the Taliban but “provided strong support including weapons” as the movement emerged in the 1990s.

Noorzai, in a brief address alongside Muttaqi and the Taliban’s acting deputy prime ministers, said he was “proud to be in the capital of my country among my brothers”.

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.

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

Haroon was accused of links to al-Qaeda but languished without charge for years at the US detention centre in Cuba after his arrest in 2006 while working as a honey trader.

He was not released under the terms of a deal with the Taliban.

Tumultuous relationship 

Since the Taliban took over last year, the US has shunned the group while freezing some $9bn of the Afghan central bank’s assets.

However, in a breakthrough earlier this month, the US said it will transfer $3.5bn of the assets into a new Swiss-based trust fund to be used “for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan”.

The new Afghan Fund, managed by an international board of trustees and shielded from the Taliban, could pay for critical imports such as electricity, cover debt payments to international financial institutions and fund the printing of new currency.

The Taliban condemned the US decision to transfer Afghan central bank reserves into a Swiss-based trust, saying it was against international norms.

“If the reserves are disbursed without taking into consideration legitimate demands of the Afghans, the Islamic Emirate will be forced to impose fines against, and ban activities of, all individuals, institutions and companies that facilitate this illegal venture and seek to misuse central bank reserves for humanitarian and other purposes,” Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said in a statement.

Tensions between the Taliban and the international community continue as the latter presses the Afghan government on human rights, particularly those of girls and women whose access to school and work has been limited. It has also urged the Taliban to stop harassing critics, activists, and journalists.

The Taliban says it is discussing the matter of girls’ education and denies cracking down on dissent.

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