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Navy veteran & contractor freed by Taliban in prisoner swap

Afghanistan’s Taliban government has released an American contractor who has been held hostage for more than two years.

Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran who had spent over a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor, was released in exchange for a convicted Taliban drug lord jailed in the United States.

Frerichs was abducted in 2020 while working in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, said Frerichs was handed over to the U.S. authorities at Kabul International Airport on Monday morning, according to The New York Times. The Taliban “is ready to solve problems by negotiation with all, including the United States,” Muttaqi said at a news conference.

In exchange, the U.S. released Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban associate who had spent 17 years in prison. According to Reuters, Noorzai was detained on charges of smuggling more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States and Europe. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 2009.

In a statement released by the White House on Monday, President Biden said that “bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly.” Biden did not provide details about the negotiations or the decisions, but said that his administration “continues to prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.”

The New York Times reports that this is the first-known prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Taliban since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last year. No foreign government has formally recognized the Taliban, but U.S. officials have said Frerichs’s case would influence their view on the legitimacy of a Taliban-led government, reports Reuters.

A U.S. official said Frerichs was in stable health.

“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 Frerichs’s sister.