An American contractor held in Afghanistan for more than two years by the Taliban has been released, his family said Monday, while a Taliban drug lord imprisoned by the United States was also released and returned to Kabul.

Mark Frerichs, a naval veteran who spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian executor, was abducted in January 2020 and believed to have been held captive by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network since then.

Negotiations for his release focused on an agreement that would also include the release of Bashir Noorzai, a famous drug lord and Taliban member who told reporters in Kabul on Monday that he had spent 17 years and six months in American captivity prior to his release.

The prisoner exchange is one of the most important prisoner exchanges under the Biden administration, which took place five months after a separate agreement with Russia that resulted in the release of Marine Veteran Trevor Reed. This was despite the concerns of his family and other supporters that the US military departure from Afghanistan and the collapse of the government there could make it difficult to bring him home and distract from his imprisonment.

A US official also confirmed the switch. Although the Biden administration did not immediately release the details of the exchange, Frerichs’ sister, who is from Lombard, Illinois, thanked the US government officials who helped secure her brother’s release.

“I am very happy that my brother is safe and is coming home to us. Our family prayed for this every day for over 31 months while he was held hostage. We never gave up hope that he would survive and come back to us safely, ”said sister Charlene Cakora.

In Afghanistan, Noorzai told reporters at a press conference that he had been released from an undefined US prison and transferred earlier that day to the Taliban in Kabul in exchange for an American prisoner held in Afghanistan whom he did not identify. Frerichs’ family later confirmed that it was him.

Other Taliban officials said Noorzai was held in US custody in Guantanamo Bay, but offered no support for the claim, and a US official said this was not the case. Noorzai was indicted by the Justice Department for failing to send the accused to a military prison in Cuba, and in 2009 he was sentenced to life imprisonment on drug trafficking charges.

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 attire and pleaded for release. The publication stated that he obtained the clip from an unidentified person in Afghanistan.

Until Monday, US officials in the two presidential administrations unsuccessfully tried to bring him home. Even before the Afghanistan takeover last August, the Taliban demanded that the US release Noorzai in exchange for the Frerich. But there was no public indication that Washington was engaging in any kind of trade or exchange in that direction.

Eric Lebson, a former US government national security official who advised the Frerichs family, said in a statement that “everything about this was a tough fight.” He criticized the Trump administration for giving up “our lever to get Mark home quickly by signing a peace accord with the Taliban, never asking them to return Mark first.

“Mark’s family then had to go through two administrations where many saw Mark’s safe return as an obstacle to their plans for Afghanistan,” the statement reads.

The collapse of the West-backed Afghan government and its takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 raised additional concerns that any progress in the negotiations might be reversed or that Frerichs might be forgotten.

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But his name came last month when President Joe Biden, who had publicly called for Frerichs’ release, his advisers said he was pushing officials to consider any risk to Frerichs from a drone strike in Afghanistan that killed an al-Qaeda leader Ayman al. -Zawahri.

The Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, also spoke at a press conference in Kabul with Noorzai and welcomed the exchange saying that it ushered in a “new era” in US-Taliban relations.

“This could be a new chapter between Afghanistan and the United States, it could open a new door to talks between the two countries,” Muttaqi said in the press.

“This act shows us that all problems can be solved through discussions and I thank the teams on both sides who have worked so hard to make it happen,” he added.

The Taliban also posted a short video on social media on Monday showing Noorzai’s arrival at Kabul Airport, where he was greeted by top Taliban officials, including Muttaqi.

At a press conference, Noorzai expressed his gratitude to see his “mujahedin brothers” – a reference to the Taliban – in Kabul.

“I pray for more Taliban success,” he added. “I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America because the American has been freed and I am now free.”

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