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US swaps drug smuggler for engineer in prisoner exchange with Taliban

Afghanistan’s Taliban exchanged American engineer Mark Frerichs for Taliban-linked Afghan tribal leader Bashir Noorzai on Monday, after President Joe Biden granted clemency to the convicted drug smuggler who had been detained by the United States since 2005, officials said.

Mark Frerichs was abducted in 2020 while working in Afghanistan. His exchange for Bashir Noorzai took place at Kabul airport, acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told a news conference.

The American arrived in Doha on a plane from Kabul at around 1:30 pm local time and is in good health, according to a source familiar with his situation. It was not immediately clear when he would travel back to the United States.

A successful resolution

Joe Biden said Frerichs’ release was the culmination of work by US officials and other governments. His administration has been under pressure from the families of Americans detained by hostile foreign governments.

Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” the US President said in a statement, without confirming the release of Noorzai.

A senior US administration official, who declined to be identified, said Biden had granted clemency to Noorzai, who had spent 17 years in US custody.

Breaking News: In a deal with the U.S., the Taliban freed the American engineer Mark Frerichs in exchange for the release of a prominent Afghan tribal leader convicted of drug trafficking.

— The New York Times (@nytimes) September 19, 2022

The smuggler and the engineer

Noorzai was detained on charges of smuggling more than USD 50 million worth of heroin into the United States and Europe. He was found guilty following a jury trial in New York in September 2008 and sentenced to life in prison in 2009.

Mark Frerichs is an engineer and US Navy veteran from Lombard, Illinois. He worked in Afghanistan for a decade on development projects. He was kidnapped in February 2020.

Mark Frerichs is coming home after two and half years in captivity in Afghanistan. Thank you to our diplomats, national security professionals, and partners in Qatar for your work to secure his release.

— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) September 19, 2022

Other possible swaps

Washington has opened negotiations with several adversaries over US detainees, including with Moscow to secure the release of basketball star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan in exchange for Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout.

Officials have also held talks with the Syrian government over journalist Austin Tice and with the government of Venezuela over the detention of Americans there.

Some critics said prisoner swaps, which have been conducted by successive US administrations, could encourage hostage taking, although advocates for the families of detainees argue there is no evidence for the claim.

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