KABUL, Sept 19 — Afghanistan’s Taliban today freed American engineer Mark Frerichs in exchange for an Afghan tribal leader linked to the Taliban who the United States had imprisoned for drug smuggling since 2005, officials said.

Frerichs, an engineer abducted in 2020 while working in Afghanistan, was exchanged at the airport in Kabul for Bashir Noorzai, acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told a news conference in the Afghan capital.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is ready to solve problems by negotiation with all including the United States,” Muttaqi said, referring to the Taliban.

US President Joe Biden said Frerichs’ release was “the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated public servants across our government and other partner governments”.

Biden’s administration has been under pressure from the families of Americans detained by hostile foreign governments and has vowed to step up efforts for their release.

“Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” Biden said in a statement, without confirming the release of Noorzai.

A senior US administration official, who declined to be named, said Biden had granted clemency to Noorzai, who had spent 17 years in US custody for heroin smuggling, a charge he denied.

Frerichs is an engineer and US Navy veteran from Lombard, Illinois, who worked in Afghanistan for a decade on development projects. He was kidnapped in February 2020.

Frerichs arrived in Doha on a plane from Kabul at around 1:30 p.m. (6.30 a.m. EST) and is in good health, according to a source familiar with his situation. It was not immediately clear when he would arrive back in the United States.

Noorzai was detained by the United States on suspicion of smuggling more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States and Europe. A court in New York sentenced him to life in prison in 2009.

The United States had pushed for the release of Frerichs, including after the hardline Islamist Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in August 2021 as US-led foreign forces were withdrawing. The administration official said it had been a “top priority” for Biden.

US officials had said his case would influence their view on the legitimacy of a Taliban-led government. No foreign government has formally recognised the Taliban, in part due to the group’s restriction of most secondary school-aged girls from education.

Noorzai briefly addressed the news conference at a Kabul hotel alongside Muttaqi and the Taliban’s acting deputy prime ministers. “I am proud to be in the capital of my country among my brothers,” Noorzai said.

The tribal leader had longstanding ties to the Taliban.

Noorzai’s lawyer had denied that his client was a drug dealer and argued that the charges should be dismissed because US government officials duped him into believing he would not be arrested. — Reuters