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U.S. Hostage in Afghanistan Freed in Prisoner Swap With Taliban

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U.S. Hostage in Afghanistan Freed in Prisoner Swap With Taliban

Mark Frerichs,

a civil engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who was kidnapped in Kabul more than two years ago, was freed Monday in a prisoner exchange between the U.S. government and the Taliban, according to the White House.

In exchange for Mr. Frerichs, believed to be the last U.S. citizen still being detained by the Taliban when U.S. forces departed the country last year, Washington handed over

Bashir Noorzai,

a drug lord who was handed a life sentence in the U.S. in 2009 for trafficking $50 million of heroin.

“Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” President Biden said in a statement. “My Administration continues to prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.”

Mr. Frerichs’s family expressed gratitude to the president and his administration for their efforts to free the 60-year-old hostage.

“My brother is alive and safe because President Biden took action,” said Charlene Cakora, Mr. Frerichs’s sister, in a statement. “There were some folks arguing against the deal that brought Mark home, but President Biden did what was right.”

A senior White House official told reporters in a briefing on Monday that freeing Mr. Noorzai wouldn’t create any additional risks for Americans or materially impact the drug trade in Afghanistan.

It was a difficult decision, the official said, but necessary to bring home an American citizen who had been unjustly held for 2½ years. Mr. Frerichs was in Qatar being offered a range of services to aid his recovery, the official said, and his family would be responsible for communicating his next steps.

Bashir Noorzai speaking during his release ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on Monday.

Photo:

Ebrahim Noroozi/Bioreports

In January 2020, Mr. Frerichs was lured to a meeting to discuss a potential work project, U.S. officials have said, and then allegedly transferred to the custody of the Haqqani network. Members of the group, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, are part of the Taliban government that took over after American forces departed.

Mr. Frerichs was captured just as the U.S. and the Taliban were preparing to sign a deal to withdraw U.S. forces in February 2020. During the course of those negotiations, the Trump administration in late 20src9 secured the release of two hostages, including one American, in return for a Haqqani prisoner.

Despite lobbying by Mr. Frerichs’s family, a deal for his release wasn’t worked out with either the Trump or Biden administrations as the last U.S. forces prepared to leave.

Taliban officials had several times suggested they were prepared to release Mr. Frerichs in exchange for Mr. Noorzai, who has spent src7 years in U.S. prisons.

The deal to free Mr. Frerichs is the latest to take place over the years. The last U.S. military prisoner of war, Army Sgt.

Bowe Bergdahl,

was freed in 20src4 in return for five high-ranking members of the former Taliban government held at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

The Taliban-appointed foreign minister,

Amir Khan Muttaqi,

said the exchange at Kabul airport this morning was the result of numerous rounds of talks and was a move that could “shorten the distance between the two nations.”

The Taliban have repeatedly said the group wants normal relations with the international community, but the U.S. and its allies say there is still a long way to go before that can happen.

A second senior U.S. official noted in the briefing with reporters that Monday marked one year since Afghan girls were banned from secondary school. The official said that allowing girls and women to study and work would be an important step for the Taliban to take to improve their standing with other nations, along with fulfilling commitments to fight terrorism.

Earlier this year, a U.S. drone strike killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in central Kabul. The White House said that he was living under the protection of senior Taliban figures.

The Taliban called the strike a violation of their sovereignty and launched an investigation into those claims.

Write to Jessica Donati at Jessica.Donati@wsj.com

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