U.S. hails release of Taliban captive following prisoner swap


An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bashir Noorzai was being held at Guantanamo Bay. He was serving a life sentence in federal prison. The article has been corrected.

Peshawar, Pakistan – Mark FrechesAn American contractor held hostage by the Taliban since his kidnapping in Kabul in 2020 has been released in exchange for an Afghan jailed in the United States on drug-trafficking charges, U.S. and Afghan officials said Monday.

Freches’ family welcomed his release, saying they were “grateful and excited” to learn that he had been released after more than 2½ years in militant custody.

“Our family has prayed for him every day,” Charlene Kakura, Friches’ sister, said a statement from the Camden Advisory Group, which was advocating for his release. “We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home to us safely.”

President Biden praised the release of Freches, who US officials said had been in US custody in Doha, Qatar. “Carrying the negotiations that led to Mark’s release to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” the president said in a statement.

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

The US plan to withdraw from Afghanistan reflects the fear that US hostages will be released by the Taliban.

To secure his release, the US government released prisoner Bashir Noorzai (also known as Haji Bashir Noorzai), a militant with ties to the Taliban, an official said. Sentenced to life in federal prison. and for drug trafficking after being transported to the United States Arrested in 2005..

Acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul welcomed Noorzai’s release. “This will open a new chapter in bilateral relations between the United States and Afghanistan,” he said in a news conference that was broadcast by local television outlets.

“We have been steadfast in our efforts to liberate. [Noorzai]and now he is with us in his country,” Muttaqi continued. He said the two men were transferred to Kabul International Airport.

Celebration, uncertainty and fear gripped Kabul for a year.

Senior U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said Freches was in “stable health” and was being offered U.S. assistance. He declined to provide details on where Freches was held during his lengthy incarceration.

Friches’ release illustrates the delicate path the Biden administration must tread in its dealings with Afghanistan’s new leaders, whom the U.S. fought for over two decades before taking power after the fall of a U.S.-backed government.

The United States, like other nations, does not officially recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, but U.S. officials regularly work with them as they try to provide aid to Afghans in need and Advocating for the rights of women and girls as the group implemented new governments. Restrictions on them.

The French deal comes weeks after the US carried out a drone strike in central Kabul. Killed Al Qaeda’s top fighter.a development that highlighted the Taliban’s ongoing ties to terrorist organizations and dealt a major blow to a possible normalization of US relations with Afghanistan’s new leaders.

A U.S. official said the Biden administration told Taliban leaders after the attack that “if any harm comes to Mark, we will hold them directly responsible, and that this is the best way to restore trust with the United States with the world.” It was to release him immediately.”

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

Officials said there was a “narrow window of opportunity” after Biden’s initial decision to potentially pardon Noorzai this summer. He compared the conviction of Noorzai, who was accused of distributing heroin in the United States since the 1990s, with the fact that Friches was not prosecuted for any crime.

This exchange is not the first that the US has done in Afghanistan. In 2014, the Obama administration approved the exchange of five senior Afghans held at Guantanamo Bay, then held hostage by the Taliban, for US soldier Bo Bergdahl. Other Americans were kidnapped in Afghanistan. have escaped or been released..

Officials declined to say whether other US citizens are now being held by the Taliban. Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists said: An American filmmaker And an Afghan producer was taken into Taliban custody. It was not immediately clear if they were still being held.

Friches’ release comes as the Biden administration seeks to secure the release of two Americans it says have been wrongfully detained by Russia. Possibly through the exchange of another prisoner.

In July, Secretary of State Anthony Blanken said authorities had made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to secure the release of basketball star Brittany Griner and businessman Paul Whelan. The offer is believed to include the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bot, who is imprisoned in the United States. On Monday, the Russian government accused Washington of negotiating to secure his release.

Laurel Miller, who served as a top official for Afghanistan during the Obama and Trump administrations, said that while Freches’ release was a positive development, it did not necessarily lead to progress on other issues. which the United States has presented as obstacles to full global support. of the Taliban regime, such as allowing all girls to go back to school.

“It’s very difficult to see how this would solve any problem in the US-Taliban relationship, other than the specific issue of the wrongful hostage taking of Freches,” he said. “It was a transactional exchange.”

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

It is being kept alive at taxpayers’ expense. We are providing his health care,” Duckworth said he told U.S. officials. “And I would prefer Mark to come home.”

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

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