By Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Humeyra Pamuk
KABUL/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Afghanistan's Taliban on Monday freed American engineer Mark Frerichs in exchange for Taliban-linked Afghan tribal leader Bashir Noorzai, after President Joe Biden granted clemency to the convicted drug smuggler who had been detained by the United States since 2005, officials said.
Frerichs, an engineer abducted in 2020 while working in Afghanistan, was exchanged at Kabul airport for Noorzai, acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told a news conference.
Biden said Frerichs' release was the culmination of work by U.S. officials and other governments. His administration has been under pressure from the families of Americans detained by hostile foreign governments and Biden says he wants to increase efforts for their release.
"Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly," Biden said in a statement, without confirming the release of Noorzai.
A senior U.S. administration official, who declined to be identified, said Biden had granted clemency to Noorzai, who had spent 17 years in U.S. custody.
Noorzai was detained on charges of smuggling more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States and Europe. He was found guilty following a jury trial in New York in September 2008 and sentenced to life in prison in 2009.
Noorzai's lawyer had denied that his client was a drug dealer and argued that the charges should be dismissed because U.S. officials duped him into believing he would not be arrested.
Frerichs is an engineer and U.S. Navy veteran from Lombard, Illinois, who worked in Afghanistan for a decade on development projects. He was kidnapped in February 2020.
Frerichs arrived in Doha on a plane from Kabul at around 1:30 p.m. (6.30 a.m. EST) and is in good health, according to a source familiar with his situation. It was not immediately clear when he would arrive back in the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, addressing an event at the United Nations in New York, thanked Qatar for its support in securing Frerichs' release.
His family welcomed the news and praised Biden's decision to make the swap.
"There were some folks arguing against the deal that brought Mark home, but President Biden did what was right," sister Charlene Cakora said in a statement.
HELD BY RUSSIA
Washington has opened negotiations with several adversaries over U.S. detainees, including with Moscow to secure the release of basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in exchange for Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout.
Officials have also held talks with the Syrian government over journalist Austin Tice and with the government of Venezuela over the detention of Americans there.
Some critics said prisoner swaps, which have been conducted by successive U.S. administrations, could encourage hostage taking, although advocates for the families of detainees argue there is no evidence for the claim.
A second U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said an executive order Biden signed in July that introduced sanctions specifically for wrongfully detaining U.S. nationals would deter countries from doing so.
The time-honoured practice of people being held to achieve political ends was "appalling" but "a fact that we need to grapple with," the official said.
TALIBAN 'READY TO SOLVE PROBLEMS'
The first administration official said the release of Frerichs had been a "top priority" for Biden even after the hardline Islamist Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in August 2021 as U.S.-led foreign forces were withdrawing.
U.S. officials had 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 secondary school-aged girls from education.
The second U.S. official said Biden decided in June to allow Noorzai's release if the Taliban were willing to free Frerichs. That was before the July 31 U.S. drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, further straining relations.
"We told the Taliban immediately after the strike that we would hold them directly responsible if any harm were to come to Mark and that the best way they might begin to rebuild trust with the United States, with the world, was to immediately release Mark," the official said.
U.S. officials acted to make the swap when a "window of opportunity" arrived this month, the official added, without elaborating.
Afghanistan's acting foreign minister Muttaqi said on Monday that the Taliban "is ready to solve problems by negotiation with all including the United States."
Noorzai briefly addressed the same news conference: "I am proud to be in the capital of my country among my brothers."
(Reporting by Mohammad Yunus Yawar in Kabul, Humeyra Pamuk at the United Nations and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Simon Lewis; Editing by Toby Chopra, Mark Porter and Grant McCool)