An American contractor held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan for 31 months was released on Monday in a swap for a Taliban drug lord jailed by the US, President Joe Biden said.
Mark Frerichs, 60, a Navy veteran who had spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor, was abducted in January 2020 and was believed to have been held since then by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network.
“Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” Mr Biden said in a statement.
“Our priority now is to make sure Mark receives a healthy and safe return and is given the space and time he needs to transition back into society.”
The White House confirmed Mr Frerichs is now in Qatar. Washington signed an accord with Doha for the Gulf country to represent US diplomatic interests in Afghanistan after the Taliban's takeover in Kabul.
The former captive is in “stable health and has been offered a range of support options”, a senior White House official told reporters.
Negotiations for Mr Frerichs's release had centred on a swap for Bashir Noorzai, a notorious drug lord and member of the Taliban who told reporters in Kabul on Monday that he had spent 17 years and six months in US captivity before being released.
“We consulted with experts across the US government, who assessed that Mr Noorzai's return to Afghanistan would not materially change any risk to Americans emanating from the country, or the nature of the drug trade there,” the senior White House official said.
The White House strongly defended the swap and said it highlighted the “humanity” of the government in Washington, but also pointedly declared there is no comparing Mr Frerichs and Mr Noorzai.
“There's no symmetry, of course, between someone like Frerichs and someone like Noorzai,” the White House official added.
“Frerichs, as we emphasised publicly and to the Taliban, had done nothing wrong and should not have been held. Noorzai received due process of law, access to counsel and his day in court.”
The exchange is one of the most significant prisoner swaps to take place during the Biden administration, coming five months after a separate deal with Russia that resulted in the release of veteran Trevor Reed.
It took place despite concerns from Mr Frerichs's family and other advocates that the US military departure from Afghanistan and the collapse of the government there could make it harder to bring him home and could deflect attention away from his imprisonment.
“Mark’s return to his loved ones is the result of intense engagement with the Taliban,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“We will remain tireless in our efforts to seek the release of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained.”
Mr Biden, who was in the UK to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, called Mr Frerichs’s family on Monday morning to share the “good news” that his administration was able to secure his release, a senior administration official said.
A sister of Mr Frerichs 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 to us. Our family has prayed for this each day of the more than 31 months he has been a hostage. We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us,” Charlene Cakora said in a statement.
In Afghanistan, Noorzai told reporters at a press conference that he had been released from an unspecified US prison and handed over earlier in the day to the Taliban in Kabul in exchange for an American prisoner held in Afghanistan whom he did not identify. Mr Frerichs’s family subsequently confirmed that it was him.
At least one other American remains in Taliban hands: filmmaker Ivor Shearer and his Afghan producer Faizullah Faizbakhsh were detained in Kabul this summer.
Agencies contributed to this report