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US contractor released by Taliban after swap for trafficker

Sept. 19, 2022 Updated Mon., Sept. 19, 2022 at 11:56 a.m.

Mark Frerichs, a Lombard native who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2020, poses in an undated photo.   (Courtesy Charlene Cakora/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Mark Frerichs, a Lombard native who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2020, poses in an undated photo.  (Courtesy Charlene Cakora/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
By Jenny Leonard Bloomberg News

Navy veteran and U.S. contractor Mark Frerichs is free after 2 1/2 years of captivity in Afghanistan under a prisoner swap personally approved by President Joe Biden, senior administration officials said Monday.

Biden agreed to commute the sentence of Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan who was convicted in 2008 of running a major heroin-smuggling operation. He had been in U.S. custody for 17 years.

“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, adding that his administration “continues to prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad” in Myanmar, Haiti, Russia, Venezuela, and elsewhere.

The president said he spoke Monday with Frerichs’s sister to share the news.

Frerichs’s release comes as U.S. officials work to secure freedom for U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan from Russian custody. Biden met with their families on Friday.

The U.S. government offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death” who in 2012 was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and a second Russian also held in a US jail, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Russia hasn’t accepted the offer and on Monday, blamed the US for the deadlock.

The Taliban announced the deal for Frerichs overnight, and Noorzai appeared at a news conference in Kabul, NBC reported.

The president decided in June to grant Noorzai clemency, a senior administration official said Monday. Following the July air strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the US government warned the Taliban there would be consequences if Frerichs was harmed, the official said.

The U.S. has assessed that Noorzai’s release doesn’t present a threat to Americans and won’t fundamentally alter the contours of the drug trade in Afghanistan, the official said.

The senior administration official said Monday that Frerichs appeared to be in stable health following an initial assessment.

In January, Biden said the Taliban would have to release Frerichs to have any legitimacy.

“This is not negotiable,” he said at the time.

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