Mark Frerichs exchanged for Taliban warlord Bashir Noorzai in Kabul

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Bashir Noorzai had been held in Guantánamo Bay. He was serving his life sentence in a federal penitentiary. The article has been corrected.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — U.S. hostage Mark Frerichs, a civilian contractor who was abducted in Kabul over two years ago, was released in exchange for an Afghan detainee held in U.S. federal prison, a top Taliban official announced Monday.

Frerichs’s family welcomed his release in a statement, saying they were “grateful and excited to learn that he has been freed,” after being held for more than 2½ years.

“I am so happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home to us. Our family has prayed for this each day,” Charlene Cakora, his sister, said in the statement from Camden Advisory Group, which has been advocating for his release. “We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us.”

President Biden, in a statement, announced Frerichs’s release but made no mention of the prisoner swap.

“Today, we have secured the release of Mark Frerichs, and he will soon be home. Mark was taken in Afghanistan in January, 2020 and held for 31 months,” Biden said. “His release is the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated public servants across our government and other partner governments, and I want to thank them for all that effort.”

The president added that “bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly.

Biden said he had spoken to Frerichs’s sister and that the focus would be on his health, safe return and transition back into society.

Frerichs’s release was the subject of negotiations between senior U.S. officials and the Taliban leading up to the signing of the U.S. withdrawal agreement in Doha, Qatar, and in the months that followed after the Biden administration oversaw the end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan last year.

U.S. plan to withdraw from Afghanistan prompts fears that U.S. hostage held by Taliban will be left behind

As the withdrawal neared without a deal securing his release, his family and advocates feared that the United States would lose all leverage to free him. But a senior administration official said Monday that “bringing Mark home has been a top priority for President Biden and his national security team.”

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the prisoner exchange publicly, added that Biden’s decision to grant clemency for the Afghan detainee in exchange for Frerichs’s freedom was “difficult.”

The released detainee, Bashir Noorzai (also known as Haji Bashir Noorzai) — a warlord and drug trafficker with ties to the Taliban — was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to life in federal prison in 2005 after being lured to the United States.

“We welcome the release of Haji Bashir, an Afghan who spent 17 years in the United States. This will open a new chapter in the bilateral relations between the United States and Afghanistan,” acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi announced at a news conference in Kabul that was broadcast by local television outlets.

“We have been persistent in our efforts to free [Noorzai], and now he is with us in his own country,” Muttaqi continued. He said the two men were swapped at Kabul’s international airport.

Celebration, uncertainty and fear grip Kabul one year on

Since the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan, the Biden administration has not formally recognized the group. The two sides have repeatedly clashed over the Taliban’s treatment of women and approach to civil liberties and the fate of billions of dollars in U.S.-held Afghan national reserves.

Last week, the Taliban condemned a move by the United States to redirect $3.5 billion of the reserves to a fund run in part by Swiss government officials and Afghan economic experts. The move “without any input from Afghanistan is unacceptable and a violation of international norms,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement following the announcement.

But Monday’s news of the swap could signal improving relations between the two sides.

George reported from Islamabad.

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