KABUL, 20 Sept 2022:
The US yesterday released a convicted drug trafficker close to the Taliban – in exchange for an American Navy veteran abducted in Afghanistan more than two years ago.
Taliban acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi claimed Haji Bashir Noorzai, in his mid-50s, was exchanged at Kabul airport with US citizen Mark Frerichs, 60.
Interior ministry spokesperson Abdul Nafi Takoor tweeted the confirmation, saying Bashir Noorzai was “released in exchange for Frerichs who was kidnapped by (Taliban fighters) in 2020 from Khost province.”
Bashir Noorzai, once believed to be close to the late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, was arrested in the US in 2005 for smuggling millions of dollars worth of narcotics into America and other parts of the world.
“The United States did well to start the negotiation and we believe that such kind of steps will pave the way for more achievement and development,” Muttaqi told reporters on the successful talks process over the prisoner exchange.
“We proved and will prove that no one will use Afghanistan soil against anyone.”
Frerichs, a veteran of the US armed forces, worked as a civil engineer on development projects in Afghanistan.
US president Joe Biden confirmed the release of Frerichs – considered the last American prisoner held by the Taliban – who has been moved to Qatar, following the prisoner swap.
In a statement, Biden – currently in the UK to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II – said he had spoken to Frerichs’ sister to communicate the news of his release and admitted that “difficult decisions” had to be taken by his administration in the negotiations.
Senior US administration officials said in an interaction with reporters that following a preliminary medical examination, Frerichs’ health condition has been found to be “stable.”
In January, two years after his capture, president Biden wanted the Taliban to “immediately release Mark before it can expect any consideration of its aspirations for legitimacy.”
“This is not negotiable,” Biden had vowed.
Bashir Noorzai, accused of providing money to the Taliban to buy arms, appeared in the press conference with Muttaqi.
He was a key Taliban ally since the insurgent movement began in 1994.
Bashir Noorzai said he spent 17 years and six months imprisoned in the US and credited the Taliban for his release from “a lifetime in jail.”
“My exchange will be a reason for peace between Islamic Emirate and the United States.”
The Taliban figure came to the US in 2005 even as he appeared on the most wanted list in America.
He was convicted in an international narcotics trafficking conspiracy and sentenced to life in May 2009 for bringing US$50 million worth of heroin into the country.
The detainee allegedly directed an international organisation dedicated to heroin trafficking since the early 1990s.