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20220925 191926

US hails release of Taliban captive after prisoner swap

thehourlynews 2 weeks ago 0
20220925 191926

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correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bashir Noorzai had been detained at Guantánamo Bay. He was serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary. The article has been corrected.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Mark Frerichs, an American contractor held captive by the Taliban since his kidnapping in Kabul in 2020, has been freed in exchange for an Afghan jailed on drug charges in the United States, US and Afghan officials said Monday.

Frerichs’ family applauded his release, saying they were “grateful and thrilled” to learn that he had been released after more than two and a half years in militant captivity.

“Our family has prayed for this every day,” Frerichs’ sister Charlene Cakora said in the statement from Camden Advisory Group, which had been advocating for her release. “We never lost hope that he survived and returned home safely to us.”

President Biden applauded the release of Frerichs, who US officials said was in US care in Doha, Qatar. “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s release to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not make lightly,” the president said in a statement.

US officials said Frerichs’ release capped months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Taliban, the insurgent group that has ruled Afghanistan since August 2021, when the United States withdrew from the country.

US plan to withdraw from Afghanistan raises fears US hostages held by Taliban will be left behind

To win his freedom, an official said, the US government released detainee Bashir Noorzai (also known as Haji Bashir Noorzai), a Taliban-linked warlord who was sentenced to life in federal prison for drug trafficking. drugs after being lured to the US and arrested in 2005.

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In Kabul, acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi praised Noorzai’s release. “This will open a new chapter in bilateral relations between the United States and Afghanistan,” he said at a news conference that was broadcast on local television media.

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

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Senior US officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said Frerichs was in “stable health” and that the United States was offering him support. They declined to provide details on where Frerichs was kept during his long captivity.

Frerichs’ statement illustrates the delicate path the Biden administration must follow in its dealings with Afghanistan’s new leaders, whom the United States battled for two decades before they took power after the collapse of the US-backed government.

The United States, like other nations, has not officially recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, but US officials have regularly engaged with them as they seek to provide aid to Afghans in need and defend the rights of women and girls. as the group imposes new restrictions on them.

Frerichs’ deal comes weeks after the United States carried out a drone strike in central Kabul that killed al-Qaeda’s top militant, an event that highlighted the Taliban’s ongoing ties to terrorist organizations and it represented a major setback for the possible normalization of US ties with the new Afghanistan. leaders

A US official said the Biden administration told Taliban leaders after that attack that “we would hold them directly accountable if Mark were to come to any harm, and that the best way they could begin to rebuild trust with the United States with the world was to release him immediately.”

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“If the Taliban are as interested as they say in normal relations with the international community, then that practice must definitely end,” another official said, referring to the hostage-taking.

Officials said there was a “narrow window of opportunity” following Biden’s initial decision this summer to potentially grant Noorzai clemency. They compared the conviction of Noorzai, who had been allegedly distributing heroin in the United States since the 1990s, with the fact that Frerichs had not been tried for any crime.

The exchange is not the first that the United States has carried out in Afghanistan. In 2014, the Obama administration approved the exchange of five high-ranking Afghans held at the Guantánamo Bay prison for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, then a Taliban hostage. Other Americans kidnapped in Afghanistan have escaped or been released.

The officials declined to say whether the Taliban are now holding other US citizens. Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists said an American filmmaker and an Afghan producer had been detained by the Taliban. It was not immediately clear if they were still being held.

Frerichs’ release comes as the Biden administration attempts to secure the release of two Americans it says are being wrongly held by Russia, possibly through another prisoner swap.

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said officials had made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to secure the release of basketball star Brittney Griner and businessman Paul Whelan. The offer was believed to include the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is jailed in the United States. On Monday, the Russian government accused Washington of delaying talks to secure his release.

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Laurel Miller, who served as the top official for Afghanistan during the Obama and Trump administrations, said that while Frerichs’ release was a positive development, it would not necessarily lead to progress on other issues that the United States has cited as impediments to support. more comprehensive global. of the Taliban government, such as allowing all girls to return to school.

“It is very difficult to see this resolving any problem in the relationship between the United States and the Taliban other than the specific problem of Frerichs being unfairly held hostage,” he said. “This was a transactional exchange.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill), whose office has described Frerichs as an “Illinoisan,” said she had been advocating for his release since the Trump administration. In a phone interview, she said she had urged the Biden administration to release Noorzai, arguing that the Afghan prisoner is elderly and in poor health.

“They keep him alive at taxpayer expense; we are providing him with medical care,” Duckworth told US officials. And I’d rather Mark come home.

George reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Ryan reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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