An American contractor held hostage in Afghanistan for more than two years has been released in exchange for a convicted Taliban drug lord jailed in the US, the White House said.
The release of Mark Frerichs represents a rare success in US-Taliban talks since the militant group took power in Afghanistan a little more than a year ago.
Mr Frerichs, a US Navy veteran who had spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor, was abducted in January 2020 and is believed to have been held since then by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network.
He was traded for Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban associate convicted of heroin trafficking conspiracy who had spent 17 years behind bars before his release on Monday.
The exchange is one of the most significant prisoner swaps to take place under the Biden administration, coming five months after a deal with Russia that resulted in the release of marine veteran Trevor Reed.
Though his case has received less public attention than other Americans held abroad, including basketball star Brittney Griner and corporate security executive Paul Whelan — who are both held in Russia and whose relatives met President Joe Biden on Friday — US officials said the deal for Mr Frerichs was the culmination of months of quiet negotiations.
The discussions gained new momentum in June when Mr Biden granted Noorzai relief from his life sentence, setting the stage for what one administration official described as a “very narrow window of opportunity this month” to carry out the deal.
Mr Biden said in a statement released by the White House: “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly.”
His ultimate destination was not immediately clear, though a Qatari Foreign Ministry official said Mr Frerichs would soon head from Doha to the US.
Mr Frerichs, 60, had been working on civil engineering projects at the time of his abduction 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 Khost, a stronghold of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network near the border with Pakistan.
He was last seen in a video posted last spring by the New Yorker in which he appeared in traditional Afghan clothing and pleaded for his release.
He was accompanied on Monday by the administration’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and was in stable health, a US official said.
Mr Frerichs’ sister Charlene Cakora said: “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 of the more than 31 months he has been a hostage. We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us.”
Noorzai, at the time of his 2005 arrest, hardly seemed an ideal recipient for presidential clemency. He had been designated on a list reserved for some of the world’s most prolific drug traffickers, and was prosecuted in federal court in New York on charges that accused him of owning opium fields in Kandahar province and relying on a network of distributors who sold the heroin.
When he was sentenced to life imprisonment, the then-top federal prosecutor in Manhattan said Noorzai’s “worldwide narcotics network supported a Taliban regime that made Afghanistan a breeding ground for international terrorism”.
The deal underscored the two sides to the Taliban’s approach to illegal drugs. In April, they announced a ban on harvesting the poppies that produce opium for making heroin – an order that also outlawed the manufacture and transportation of narcotics. However, during the years-long Taliban insurgency, they reportedly made millions of pounds taxing farmers and middle men who moved their drugs outside Afghanistan.
A senior administration official said the US government has now determined that Noorzai’s release would “not materially change any risk to Americans or fundamentally alter the contours of the drug trade there”.
Officials also took into account that Noorzai had spent 17 years in prison, and said that it became clear from negotiations that releasing him was the key to getting Mr Frerichs home.
At a press conference on Monday, Noorzai expressed gratitude at seeing his “mujahedeen brothers” in Kabul.
“I pray for more success of the Taliban,” he added. “I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America, because an American was released and I am also free now.”
The Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, hailed the exchange as the start of a “new era” in US-Taliban relations and the opening of a “new door for talks”.