Islamabad, Pakistan – A Taliban senior prisoner held for years in Guantanamo Bay said on Monday that he had been released and handed over to the Taliban earlier that day in Kabul in exchange for an American prisoner held in Afghanistan.
Bashir Noorzai, a famous drug lord and Taliban member, told reporters in Kabul that he spent 17 years and six months in US custody in Guantanamo Bay and that he was the last Taliban prisoner there.
Taliban-appointed Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi also spoke at a press conference with Noorzai and welcomed the exchange saying that it ushered in a “new era” in US-Taliban relations.
Muttaqi said the released American was Mark Frerichs, a naval veteran and civil engineer who was kidnapped in Afghanistan on January 31, 2020. A native of Lombard, Illinois, was taken after a meeting in the Afghan capital to discuss the project.
Frerichs wasasking for his release so he can reunite with his family, according to a recording published by The New Yorker magazine at the time.
There was no independent confirmation of a word from Washington about Frerichs’ release.
“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 a press in Kabul.
“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,” added Muttaqi.
Frerichs of Lombard, Illinois, was believed to be held by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, and US officials from the two presidential administrations unsuccessfully tried to bring him home. In a video that marked Frerichs for the first time since his kidnapping, he says it was filmed last November.
Sometimes hostage videos are released to show evidence that they are alive and to facilitate release negotiations, although it was not immediately clear if this was the case here. The New Yorker said he obtained the clip from an unidentified person in Afghanistan.
At this point, the FBI declined to comment on the authenticity of the film, but Frerichs’ sister Charlene Cakora issued a statement thanking the Taliban for making the film available and described it as “public confirmation of our family’s long held belief that he is alive after more than two years in captivity ”.
In July 2021, she told CBS News that she wanted to tell President Biden that she knew she was “well aware of my brother.” You know my brother’s situation … Are you doing everything in your power to bring my brother home, he was your own brother?
Cakora told CBS News that the day has not passed without imagining the moment when she finds out her brother is returning home.
“When they call me and say they found Mark and he’s on the plane, you will go see him … I would hug him the hardest when I see him,” she said. “I don’t think I’d like to let go.”
Since taking Afghanistan last August, the Taliban have demanded the US release Noorzai in exchange for the Frerich pending such exchanges for US citizens held in Afghanistan.
However, there was no public indication that Washington was moving forward in any form of trafficking or prison exchanges.
The Taliban also posted a short video on social media on Monday showing Noorzai’s arrival at Kabul Airport and being 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.”
Noorzai made no mention of his treatment at Guantanamo Bay, a detention facility used to detain Muslim fighters, including al-Qaida fighters, Taliban and suspects captured by US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere after the September 11, 2001 terror*st att*cks.
The facility has become the subject of worldwide controversy over alleged violations of detainees’ rights under the Geneva Conventions and allegations of torture or abuse against detainees by US authorities.
After September 11, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban who were hiding al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and his supporters. Bin Laden was killed in the 2011 US air raid on Pakistan.
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