Afghanistan’s foreign minister says US navy veteran Mark Frerichs was exchanged for Taliban associate Bashar Noorzai.
The Taliban and the United States have completed a prisoner swap, Afghanistan’s foreign minister says, with an American navy veteran traded for a key associate of the Afghan rulers.
Amir Khan Muttaqi on Monday said Mark Frerichs – kidnapped in 2020 – was exchanged for Bashar Noorzai, a strongman and Taliban ally imprisoned for 17 years in a US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay for heroin smuggling.
“Today, Mark Frerichs was handed over to the US and Haji Bashar was handed over to us at Kabul airport,” Muttaqi told reporters in Kabul. He said the exchange happened “after long negotiations”, adding that Frerichs was given to a US delegation.
The US navy veteran was working in Afghanistan as a civil engineer on construction projects when he was kidnapped, the US State Department said. He was last seen in a video earlier this year, pleading for his release so that he can be reunited with his family, according to a recording posted by The New Yorker magazine at the time. In the video, Frerichs says it was filmed last November.
Afghan government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the AFP news agency Noorzai held no official position in the Taliban but “provided strong support including weapons” as the movement emerged in the 1990s.
Noorzai in a brief address alongside Muttaqi and the Taliban’s acting deputy prime ministers said he was “proud to be in the capital of my country among my brothers”.
Noorzai’s lawyer had denied his client was a drug dealer and argued the charges should be dismissed because US government officials duped him into believing he would not be arrested.
Since the Taliban took over last year, the US has shunned the group while freezing some $9bn of the Afghan central bank’s assets.
However, in a breakthrough earlier this month, the US said it will transfer $3.5bn of the assets into a new Swiss-based trust fund to be used “for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan”.
The new Afghan Fund, managed by an international board of trustees and shielded from the Taliban, could pay for critical imports such as electricity, cover debt payments to international financial institutions and fund the printing of new currency.
The Taliban condemned the US decision to transfer Afghan central bank reserves into a Swiss-based trust, saying it was against international norms.
“If the reserves are disbursed without taking into consideration legitimate demands of the Afghans, the Islamic Emirate will be forced to impose fines against, and ban activities of, all individuals, institutions and companies that facilitate this illegal venture and seek to misuse central bank reserves for humanitarian and other purposes,” Afghan foreign ministry’s spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said in a statement.
Tensions between the Taliban and the international community continue as the latter presses the Afghan government on human rights, particularly those of girls and women whose access to school and work has been limited. It has also urged the Taliban to stop harassing critics, activists, and journalists.
The Taliban says it is discussing the matter of girls’ education and denies cracking down on dissent.