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US contractor freed by Taliban in swap for drug trafficker

by The Associated Press | September 20, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- 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 United States, the White House said Monday, announcing a rare success in U.S.-Taliban talks since the militant group took power a little more than a year ago

Mark Frerichs, a 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 in 2008 who had spent 17 years behind bars before his release Monday.

The exchange is one of the most significant prisoner swaps to take place under the Biden administration, coming five months after a separate deal with Russia that resulted in the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed. Frerichs' family and other advocates had feared that the U.S. military departure from Afghanistan, and the rise of the Taliban to power, would make it harder to bring him home and deflect attention away from his imprisonment.

U.S. officials across two presidential administrations had tried unsuccessfully to bring Frerichs home. His case has received less public attention than those of other Americans held abroad, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and corporate security executive Paul Whelan, who are both held in Russia and whose relatives met with Biden on Friday

Discussions gained new momentum in June when President Joe 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.

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."

A sister of Frerichs, who is from Lombard, Illinois, thanked U.S. 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 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," said a statement from the sister, Charlene Cakora.

At the time of his 2005 arrest, Noorzai would hardly have seemed an ideal recipient for presidential clemency. He'd 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."

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