Taliban say US national freed in exchange for key ally

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Kabul, Sept 19: An American navy veteran detained in Afghanistan since 2020 was released by the Taliban on Monday in exchange for an ally who spent 17 years in a US jail for heroin smuggling, Afghanistan’s foreign minister said.

Mark Frerichs was working as a civil engineer on construction projects in Afghanistan when he was “taken hostage”, Washington previously said.

“After long negotiations, US citizen Mark Frerichs was handed over to an American delegation and that delegation handed over (Bashar Noorzai) to us today at Kabul airport,” Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said at a press conference.

“We are happy that at Kabul International Airport, in the capital of Afghanistan, we witnessed the wonderful ceremony of one of our compatriots returning home.”

Noorzai was welcomed with a hero’s fanfare by the government of the newly-styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). Photos show he was greeted by masked Taliban soldiers bearing floral garlands.

“If the IEA had not shown its strong determination, I would not have been here today,” Noorzai told reporters at the press conference.

“My release in exchange for an American will be a source of peace between Afghanistan and Americans.”

Noorzai is the second Afghan inmate released by the United States in recent months. In June, Assadullah Haroon was released after 15 years of detention in the United States’ notorious Guantanamo Bay prison.

Haroon was accused of links to Al-Qaeda but languished without charge for years at the US detention centre in Cuba, after his arrest in 2006 whilst working as a honey trader.

He was not released under the terms of a deal with the Taliban.

Afghan security analyst Hekmatullah Hekmat said Noorzai’s release was a “major achievement” for Kabul’s new rulers.

 “The Taliban can tell their foot soldiers and Afghans that they are able to bring back their people held by opposition groups,” he told.

 Muttaqi said the homecoming of Noorzai marks the beginning of a “new chapter” in relations between Afghanistan and the United States.