Taliban free last US hostage in swap for drug lord

ISLAMABAD: The Taliban on Monday freed Mark Frerichs, a navy veteran who was the last remaining American hostage in Afghanistan, in exchange for Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan tribal leader detained by the US in 2005 over drug charges.
Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told reporters that the prisoner swap took place at Kabul airport in the presence of government officials and an American delegation. “Today Mark Frerichs was handed over to the US and Haji Bashir was handed over to us,” Muttaqi said.
Frerichs, 60, was abducted by the Taliban in 2020, a year before the group took control of Afghanistan after toppling the previous US-backed Afghan government.
Frerichs had been working in Kabul as a civil engineer for almost a decade. He was last seen in a video earlier this year, pleading for his release. There was no immediate word from the US government or Frerichs’s family following his release.
Noorzai — known as Haji Bashir — was arrested in New York in 2005 and subsequently charged with smuggling millions of dollars worth of heroin into the US. In 2008, he was convicted by a court in New York of conspiring to smuggle into the US heroin valued at more than $50 million.
The Afghan drug lord was considered a close ally and friend of Taliban founder Mullah Omar and had reportedly helped finance the first Taliban government in the 1990s.
“In 2001, after the US began military operations in Afghanistan, Noorzai, at Mullah Omar’s request, provided the Taliban with hundreds of fighters to battle the then-anti-Taliban alliance of Afghan groups,” a US charge-sheet against him read.
On Monday, Noorzai was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Kabul, greeted by Taliban fighters with garlands of flowers. “My release, together with that of an American, will make peace between the countries,” Noorzai told a presser alongside foreign minister Muttaqi and the Taliban acting deputy prime ministers.
Muttaqi said the swap was the outcome of long negotiations between Kabul and Washington. “The development has opened a new chapter in relations between Afghanistan and the US and it would help resolve bilateral problems through negotiations,” he added.
Critics felt, however, that it was too early to conclude whether the exchange would lead to any change in US dealings with the Taliban, noting that the Islamist group had for long denied it was behind Frerichs’ abduction.
Moreover, tensions between the Taliban and the international community continue over human rights, including its restrictive approach towards education and work for women as well as harassment of critics, activists and journalists.

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