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Taliban release U.S. engineer in prisoner swap

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Navy veteran Mark Frerichs is free after 2 1/2 years of captivity in Afghanistan under a prisoner swap personally approved by President Joe Biden, a senior administration official told NBC News on Monday.

After months of negotiations with the Taliban, Biden agreed to commute the sentence of an Afghan drug lord, Bashir Noorzai, who spent 17 years in U.S. custody and was convicted in 2008 of running a major operation to smuggle heroin into New York City.

The Taliban announced the deal overnight and Noorzai appeared at a news conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

“This is a painful decision for any president to make,” the administration official said. “There is just no symmetry at all between Mark, who did absolutely nothing wrong … and Noorzai, who had all the benefits of the U.S. legal system.”

Early Monday, Biden called Frerichs’ sister, Charlene Cakora, with the news, the official said.

Frerichs, 60, is a civil engineer from Lombard, Illinois, who had been working as a contractor. He is the last U.S. hostage who was on the radar of the Biden White House before U.S. troops left Afghanistan a year ago.

There is no allegation on the public record that Noorzai killed Americans, although federal prosecutors said his drug smuggling network did great harm. He once controlled a significant share of the world’s heroin trade and has been described as the Asian counterpart of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Frerichs landed in Doha, Qatar, sometime after 5:30 a.m. ET, after boarding the same plane that delivered Noorzai, the official said. An initial medical check in Kabul found him to be in good health, the official said.

Frerichs was seized on the streets of Kabul by the Haqqani network in 2020, officials have said. In recent years, it has become clear that the Taliban wanted Noorzai’s freedom as a condition of releasing the American.

Biden made the decision to authorize that release in June, the official said. He said the U.S. operation to kill Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in August did not seem to complicate the talks.

Noorzai had been producing heroin in Afghanistan for sale in the United States since the 1990s, and he helped the Taliban leader Mullah Omar take power, according to Justice Department records. He lent around 400 of his fighters to the Taliban in 2001 to fight the Northern Alliance, the Justice Department said at the time of his sentencing.

He was arrested in New York in 2005 after he came to the U.S. under an arrangement in which he believed he was providing information to the U.S. government, a turn of events his lawyers would later call a betrayal.

“We are working very hard as a government not just to resolve current cases, but also to punish, and by punishing, deter future cases,” the senior administration official said.

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