Taliban requests US release of former drug lord

American prosecutors said Haji Bashir Noorzai, nicknamed the Pablo Escobar of the Middle East, funnelled money, arms and men to the Taliban as they rose to power, allowing him to ship heroin to the US

The Taliban have asked America to release a former drug kingpin from jail in a formal request for the freedom of a man once ranked among the world's biggest heroin traffickers.

Haji Bashir Noorzai was given a life sentence in 2009 after being convicted of running a heroin trafficking operation whose tentacles reached from Afghanistan to the United States.

The Mujahideen commander and drug lord was said to have close ties with the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, before he was caught in a US counter-narcotics sting.

At the time of his arrest, Mr Noorzai was on a US government target list of the most powerful and dangerous narcotics traffickers in the world and was nicknamed the Pablo Escobar of the Middle East.

His fate was discussed this week during a conference call between US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and the Taliban's lead negotiator, Mullah Baradar, a spokesman said.

“Mullah Baradar Akhund asked the US Secretary of State to release Haji Bashir, who is held in America, and the Afghan detainees remaining in Guantanamo,” said Suhail Shaheen.

Mr Pompeo also said the pair had spoken but made no mention of any conversation over Mr Noorzai.

He said he had spoken “with the Taliban chief negotiator to press the Taliban to live up to their commitments under the US-Taliban agreement, including not to attack Americans.”

Mr Noorzai is said to retain extensive political influence among the Noorzai tribe in districts around Kandahar where the Taliban movement was founded.

The drug lord is said to have used opium money to raise a Mujahideen band to fight the Russians during the 1980s and at the same time became close to Mullah Omar.

American prosecutors said he ruled parts of Kandahar during the 1990s after the Russian withdrawal and funnelled money, arms and men to the Taliban as they rose to power. In return they allowed him to continue his drug smuggling business. Opium was converted to heroin in labs along Afghanistan's border and then shipped to the US.

He was arrested in the US in 2005 and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to import heroin, and to manufacture and distribute heroin knowing that it would be imported into the United States, and one count of conspiring to distribute heroin.

His trial judge said the details of his arrival and arrest in the US were “certainly unusual to say the least”.

Mr Noorzai told the trial he was lured to the US by agents who said they would give him safe passage to help them investigate terror financing. When he flew in, they questioned him in a hotel room for 11 days before finally arresting him.