The Taliban has released an American engineer they’d kept captive since 2020 in exchange for a Taliban-linked Afghan tribal leader, who was serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison on heroin trafficking charges.
Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said the prisoner exchange between American hostage Mark Frerichs and Taliban ally Bashir Noorzai took place at the Kabul airport on Monday, according to Reuters.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the deal to release Frerichs “required difficult decisions” that he “did not take lightly,” referring to the release of Noorzai, who was arrested in 2005 for smuggling heroin into the United States.
“His release is the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated public servants across our government and other partner government, and I want to thank them for all that effort,” Biden said in a statement.
“My administration continues to prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, and we will not stop until they are reunited with their families,” he added.
Mark Frerichs is coming home after two and half years in captivity in Afghanistan. Thank you to our diplomats, national security professionals, and partners in Qatar for your work to secure his release.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) September 19, 2022
The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August last year when the United States withdrew its forces, resulting in more than 120,000 people fleeing the country. Washington does not recognize the Taliban government.
Frerichs, 60, is a former U.S. Navy veteran from Illinois who worked as a civil engineer in Afghanistan for a decade. U.S. authorities believed that the Taliban-linked Haqqani network kidnapped Frerichs in Kabul in January 2020.
He was last seen in a video posted by The New Yorker last year in which he pleaded for his release. A U.S. official said that Frerichs was accompanied by the administration’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and was in stable health.
His ultimate destination was not immediately clear, though a Qatari Foreign Ministry official said Frerichs would soon head from Doha to the United States.
The Arrest of Bashir Noorzai
Noorzai is an Afghan leader of his namesake tribe. According to U.S. prosecutors, Noorzai owned opium fields in Kandahar province and had subordinates convert the opium into heroin at laboratories in Afghanistan.
U.S. prosecutors said that Noorzai relied on a network of distributors in New York City to sell his heroin, which he smuggled into the country by hiding it in suitcases and on ships.
He was also accused of providing financial support to the Taliban in exchange for the ability to continue his drug trafficking activities with impunity. Noorzai was included on a list reserved for the world’s most prolific drug traffickers.
Noorzai was arrested in 2005 and sentenced to life in prison on heroin importation and distribution conspiracy charges. He had spent 17 years behind bars before his release on Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.