The swap is one of the largest prisoner swaps to take place under the Biden administration, coming five months after a separate deal with Russia resulted in the release of Navy veteran Trevor Reed. This took place despite concerns from his family and other advocates that the departure of the US military from Afghanistan and the collapse of the government there could make it more difficult for him to return home and divert attention from his imprisonment.
President Joe Biden, who is in the UK to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, called Frerichs’ family on Monday morning to share the “good news” that his administration was able to secure his release, according to a senior official. administration.
The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, called the decision to grant Noorzai clemency a “difficult decision” but necessary to reunite a US citizen with his family. .
A sister of Frerichs, originally from Lombard, Illinois, thanked US government officials who helped secure her brother’s release.
“I am so happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home. Our family has prayed for this every day of the more than 31 months he has been hostage. We have never gave up hope that he would survive and return home safely,” said a statement from the sister, Charlene Cakora.
In Afghanistan, Noorzai told reporters at a press conference that he had been released from an unspecified US prison and handed over earlier today to the Taliban in Kabul, in exchange for an American prisoner held in Afghanistan. which he did not identify. Frerichs’ family later confirmed that it was him.
Frerichs, 60, was working on civil engineering projects at the time of his abduction on January 31, 2020 in Kabul. He was last seen in a video published last spring by The New Yorker in which he appeared in traditional Afghan clothing and pleaded for his release. The publication said it obtained the clip from an unidentified individual in Afghanistan.
Until Monday, US officials from two presidential administrations had tried unsuccessfully to bring him home. Even before their takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, the Taliban had demanded the American release of Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs. But there had been no public sign of Washington engaging in any sort of trade or exchange along these lines.
Eric Lebson, a former U.S. government national security official who advised Frerichs’ family, said in a statement that “everything about this has been an uphill battle.” He blamed the Trump administration for ceding “our influence to bring Mark home quickly by signing a peace deal with the Taliban without ever asking them to bring Mark back first.
“Mark’s family then had to navigate between two administrations, where many people saw Mark’s safe return as an obstacle to their plans for Afghanistan,” the statement said.
The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and the Taliban takeover in August 2021 raised further concern that any progress in the negotiations could be reversed or that Frerichs could be forgotten.
But his name surfaced last month when President Joe Biden, who had publicly called for Frerichs’ release, was told by his advisers that he had pressed officials to consider any risk posed to Frerichs by the drone attack in Afghanistan. who killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Taliban-appointed foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi also spoke at the Kabul press conference alongside Noorzai and welcomed the exchange, saying it marked the start of a “new era” in US-Taliban relations.
“It can be a new chapter between Afghanistan and the United States, it can open a new door for the talks between the two countries,” Muttaqi told the presser.
“This act shows us that all issues can be resolved through talks and I thank the teams on both sides who have worked so hard to make this happen,” he added.
The Taliban also posted a brief video Monday on social media showing Noorzai arriving at Kabul airport where he was greeted by senior Taliban officials, including Muttaqi.
At the press conference, Noorzai expressed his gratitude for seeing his “mujahideen brothers” – a reference to the Taliban – in Kabul.
“I pray for more success from the Taliban,” he added. “I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America, because an American has been freed and I am also free now.”