Mark Frerichs: American held captive in Afghanistan for more than 2 years is freed in prisoner exchange

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CNN

Mark Frerichs, an American detained in Afghanistan for more than two years, was released in a prisoner swap, a senior Biden administration official confirmed Monday.

“Bringing Mark home has been a top priority for President Biden and his national security team,” the official said.

Haji Bashir Noorzai, a prominent member of the Taliban, who was jailed in the United States for drug trafficking for 17 years, was granted clemency as part of the deal, the official said.

Frerichs, a Navy veteran from Illinois, was kidnapped in late January 2020 while doing construction work in Afghanistan. It is believed that he was held by the Haqqani network, which is a faction of the Taliban. He disappeared less than a month before the US signed a peace deal with the Taliban.

Frerichs was able to board the plane alone, a source familiar with the matter said, and his physical and mental condition appears to be good. He is currently in Doha, Qatar.

Frerichs’ family congratulated Biden on securing his release, with his sister, Charlene Cakora, saying in a statement, “There were people arguing against the deal that brought Mark home, but President Biden did what was right. He saved the life of an innocent American veteran.

“I am so happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home. Our family has prayed for this every day of the more than 31 months he has been hostage,” Cakora said. “We never gave up hope that he would survive and return home safely.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed Frerichs’ release and pledged to work to free other Americans “arbitrarily and unjustly” detained overseas.

“Mark will soon be reunited with his family,” Blinken told a free speech roundtable at the UN in New York. “The president had the opportunity to speak to them a few hours ago.”

Blinken said the United States will “bring the same determination and focus” to the release of other Americans “arbitrarily and wrongfully detained” overseas as it did for Frerichs.

“I want the families of Americans who are arbitrarily detained or held hostage anywhere in the world to know that our commitment to them to bring their loved ones home is steadfast and we will continue our unrelenting focus on that,” Blinken added. .

A Taliban spokesman said the swap was secured through constructive “dialogue” with the United States.

“Through dialogue, understanding, and interaction, the freedom of Haji Bashar and the release of an American citizen has shown that good interaction and goodwill are the most effective way to resolve cases,” tweeted spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Zabihullah Mujahid. “There can be no progress in relations with the Afghans through force and pressure, but on the contrary, understanding can do everything.”

Earlier this year, The New Yorker published a video of Frerichs pleading for his release – the first time the Illinois native had been seen in years.

“I patiently waited for my release,” Frerichs says in the brief video, which he says is recorded on Nov. 28, 2021.

Since his brother’s kidnapping, Cakora has called on the US government to do more to secure his release, stepping up those calls in the run-up to a US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration secured the release of U.S.-Afghan Navy reservist Safi Rauf and his brother Anees Khalil, a U.S. green card holder, who had been held by the Taliban since December.

The Biden administration undertook months of negotiations with the Taliban to secure Frerichs’ freedom, a senior administration official said Monday, and the president decided in June to grant clemency to Noorzai if it would lead to the release of captive American.

Speaking on a call with reporters, the official said it had become clear that releasing Noorzai was “key to securing Mark’s expected freedom”, but that the decision on clemency for the trafficker Afghan drug dealer was “difficult”.

The administration sees no equivalence between Noorzai, who was serving a 17-year sentence in the United States, and Frerichs. Noorzai was not detained at Guantanamo Bay, despite reports that he was, the official said.

“We consulted with US government experts, who felt that Noorzai’s (release) in Afghanistan would not materially change the risks to Americans emanating from the country or the nature of drug trafficking there,” the official said. .

Weeks after Biden made the decision on Noorzai, the president authorized the strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul.

“As we also said publicly at the time, we told the Taliban immediately after the strike, that we would hold them directly responsible should anything harm happen to Mark, and that the best way for them to start restoring confidence with the United States, with the world, was to release Mark immediately,” the official said.

The official said the window of opportunity for the exchange finally presented itself this month and the administration “acted very quickly.” But they would not say where Frerichs had been held during his more than two years in captivity, nor would they say if the United States had given anything else to the Taliban for Frerichs’ release.

A second senior administration official said the United States would continue to impress on the Taliban that they had to end the hostage-taking if they wanted to be recognized by the international community.

The first official would not say if the Taliban are keeping other Americans at home. They said they were aware of the case of American filmmaker Ivor Shearer and his producer, who the Committee to Protect Journalists said were arrested by the Taliban in August, but did not provide further details.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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