Taliban release American engineer Mark Frerichs in prisoner swap

KABUL – Afghanistan’s Taliban freed on Monday American engineer Mark Frerichs in exchange for an Afghan tribal leader linked to the Taliban who the United States had held on drugs charges since 2005, the group’s acting foreign minister said.

Mr Frerichs was exchanged at the airport in the capital, Kabul, with Mr Bashir Noorzai, acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told a news conference in the city.

Mr Noorzai was detained by the US on suspicion of smuggling more than US$50 million (S$70.5 million) worth of heroin into the US and Europe.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is ready to solve problems by negotiation with all including the United States,” Mr Muttaqi said, referring to the Taliban.

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

The US has no official representation in Afghanistan and US government officials elsewhere were not immediately available for comment.

The US has been pushing for the release of Mr Frerichs, including after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, as US-led foreign forces were withdrawing.

US officials have said his case would influence their view on the legitimacy of a Taliban-led government. No foreign government has formally recognised the Taliban, in part due to the group’s restriction of most girls from education.

Mr Noorzai briefly addressed the news conference at a Kabul hotel, alongside Mr Muttaqi and the Taliban’s acting deputy prime ministers.

“I am proud to be in the capital of my country among my brothers,” he said.

The tribal leader had longstanding ties to the Taliban.

Mr 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. REUTERS