WASHINGTON (AP) — An American contractor held hostage in Afghanistan for more than two years by the Taliban has been released, his family said Monday, as a Taliban drug lord jailed by the United States was also freed and returned to Kabul.
Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran who had spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor, was abducted in January 2020 and was believed to have been since then by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network.
Negotiations for his release had centered on a deal that would also involve the release of Bashir Noorzai, a notorious drug lord and member of the Taliban who told reporters in Kabul on Monday that he spent 17 years and six months in US captivity
The Biden administration did not immediately confirm details of the prisoner swap, but a sister of Frerichs, who is from Lombard, Illinois, thanked US government officials who helped secure her brother’s release.
“I am so happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home to us. Our family has prayed for this every 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,” said a statement from the sister, Charlene Cakora.
In Afghanistan, Noorzai told reporters at a press conference that he had been released from an unspecified US prison and handed over earlier in the day to the Taliban in Kabul, in exchange for an American prisoner held in Afghanistan whom he did not identify.
Other Taliban officials claimed Noorzai was held at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but did not offer to say anything to support that claim.
The Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, also spoke at the press conference alongside Noorzai and welcomed the exchange, saying it marked the start of a “new era” in US-Taliban relations.
Frerichs, abducted on Jan. 31, 2020, was last seen in a video distributed earlier this year, pleading for his release so that he can be reunited with his family, according to a recording posted by The New Yorker magazine at the time.
“This can be a new chapter between Afghanistan and the United States, this can open a new door for talks between both countries,” Muttaqi said at the Kabul presser.
“This act shows us that all problems can be solved through talks and I thank both sides’ teams who worked so hard for this to happen,” Muttaqi added.
Frerichs, of Lombard, Illinois, was believed to be held by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, and US officials across two presidential administrations had tried unsuccessfully to get him home. In the video, which marked the first time Frerichs was seen since his abduction, he says it was filmed last November.
Videos of hostages are sometimes released to show proof that they are alive and to facilitate negotiations for a release, although it was not immediately clear if that was the case here. The New Yorker said it obtained the clip from an unidentified individual in Afghanistan.
At the time, the FBI declined to comment on the video’s authenticity, but a sister of Frerichs, Charlene Cakora, issued a statement thanking the Taliban for releasing the video and describing it as “public confirmation of our family’s long-held belief that he is alive after more than two years in captivity.”
Since their takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, the Taliban have demanded the United States release Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs amid expectations of such exchanges for US citizens held in Afghanistan.
However, there has been no public sign of Washington moving forward on any sort of prisoner trade or exchange.
The Taliban also posted a brief video Monday on social media showing Noorzai’s arrival at the Kabul airport where he was welcomed by top Taliban officials, including Muttaqi.
At the press conference, Noorzai expressed gratitude at seeing his “mujahedeen brothers” — a reference to the Taliban — 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.”
Faiz reported from Islamabad.