Monday, October 3, 2022

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Taliban, US swap prisoners – Guantanamo detainee for Marine veteran

Afghan foreign minister said US Navy veteran Mark Frerichs had been swapped for Taliban partner Bashar Noorzai.

The Taliban and the United States have completed a prisoner swap, Afghan foreign minister says, trading a US Navy veteran for a key partner of Afghan rulers.

Amir Khan Muttaqi said Monday Mark Frerichs – who was kidnapped in 2020 – had been swapped for Bashar Noorzai, a strongman and Taliban ally who served 17 years in a US prison at Guantanamo Bay on charges of smuggling heroin.

“Today Mark Frerichs was handed over to the US and Haji Bashar was handed over to us at Kabul Airport,” Muttaqi told reporters in Kabul. He said the exchange came “after lengthy negotiations,” adding that Frerichs was handed over to a US delegation.

The US Navy veteran was working as a civil engineer on construction projects in Afghanistan when he was kidnapped, the US State Department said. He was last seen in a video earlier this year pleading for his release so he can be reunited with his family, according to a recording published by The New Yorker magazine at the time. In the video, Frerichs says it was shot last November.

Afghan government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP that Noorzai held no official position with the Taliban but had “provided strong support including arms” when the movement emerged in the 1990s.

Noorzai, in a short speech alongside Muttaqi and the incumbent Taliban deputy prime ministers, said he was “proud to be among my brothers in my country’s capital”.

Noorzai’s lawyer had denied that his client was a drug dealer and argued the charges should be dropped because US government officials led him to believe he would not be arrested.

Since the Taliban took power last year, the US has shunned the group and frozen some $9 billion of Afghan central bank assets.

However, in a breakthrough earlier this month, the US announced it would transfer $3.5 billion of the assets to a new Swiss-based trust fund to be used “for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan.”

The new Afghan fund, managed by an international board of trustees and shielded from the Taliban, could pay for essential imports like electricity, cover debt payments to international financial institutions and finance the printing of new currencies.

The Taliban condemned the US decision to transfer the Afghan central bank’s reserves to a Swiss-based trust, saying it violated international norms.

“If the reserves are disbursed without considering Afghans’ legitimate claims, the Islamic Emirate will be forced to impose fines and ban activities from all individuals, institutions and companies that support this illegal enterprise and attempt to misuse central bank reserves for humanitarian purposes.” and other purposes,” Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said in a statement.

Tensions between the Taliban and the international community continue as the latter urges the Afghan government to respect human rights, particularly those of girls and women, whose access to school and work is restricted. It has also called on the Taliban to stop harassing critics, activists and journalists.

The Taliban say they debate the issue of girls’ education and deny cracking down on dissent.

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