US Navy veteran Mark Frerichs and Afghan Taliban associate Bashar Noorzai have been swapped in a prisoner exchange between the two countries, according to a Taliban minister.

Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said the exchange happened
Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said the exchange happened "after long negotiations". (Reuters Archive)

Afghanistan's Taliban has freed an American engineer in exchange for an Afghan tribal leader linked to the Taliban who the United States had held on drugs charges since 2005, the group's foreign minister has said.

Mark Frerichs was exchanged at the airport in the capital city of Kabul with Bashir Noorzai, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told a news conference in the city on Monday.

Noorzai was detained by the United States on suspicion of smuggling more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States and Europe.

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

A senior US official confirmed the development hours later, saying President Joe Biden granted clemency to Noorzai. 

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

Frerichs was believed to be held by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, and US officials across two presidential administrations have tried unsuccessfully to get him home.

The United States has been pushing for the release of Frerichs, including after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, as US-led foreign forces were withdrawing.

US officials have 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 girls from education.

READ MORE: Biden asks Taliban to free Mark Frerichs if it 'expects legitimacy'

Detained in Guantanamo Bay

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," he said.

The tribal leader had longstanding ties to the Taliban.

Noorza told reporters in Kabul that he spent 17 years and six months in the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, and that he was the last Taliban prisoner there.

While he held no official position, he had “provided strong support including weapons” for the Taliban in the 1990s, government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP news agency.

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

The Taliban posted a brief video Monday on social media showing Noorzai’s arrival at the Kabul airport where he was welcomed by top Taliban officials, including Muttaqi.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies