KABUL    -   An American navy veteran detained in Afghanistan since 2020 was re­leased by the Taliban on Monday in exchange for an ally who spent 17 years in a US jail for heroin smug­gling, Afghanistan’s foreign minis­ter said. Mark Frerichs was working as a civil engineer on construction projects in Afghanistan when he was “taken hostage”, Washington previ­ously said.

“After long negotiations, US citi­zen Mark Frerichs was handed over to an American delegation and that delegation handed over (Bashar Noorzai) to us today at Kabul air­port,” Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said at a press confer­ence. “We are happy that at Kabul In­ternational Airport, in the capital of Afghanistan, we witnessed the won­derful ceremony of one of our com­patriots returning home.”

Noorzai was welcomed with a he­ro’s fanfare by the government of the newly-styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). Photos show he was greeted by masked Taliban sol­diers bearing floral garlands.

“If the IEA had not shown its strong determination, I would not have been here today,” Noorzai told reporters at the press conference.

“My release in exchange for an American will be a source of peace between Afghanistan and Ameri­cans.” Noorzai is the second Afghan inmate released by the United States in recent months. In June, Assadullah Haroon was released after 15 years of detention in the United States’ no­torious Guantanamo Bay prison.

Haroon was accused of links to Al-Qaeda but languished without charge for years at the US deten­tion centre in Cuba, after his ar­rest in 2006 whilst working as a honey trader.

He was not released under the terms of a deal with the Taliban.

Afghan security analyst Hekmat­ullah Hekmat said Noorzai’s release was a “major achievement” for Ka­bul’s new rulers.

“The Taliban can tell their foot sol­diers and Afghans that they are able to bring back their people held by opposition groups,” he told AFP.

Muttaqi said the homecoming of Noorzai marks the beginning of a “new chapter” in relations between Afghanistan and the United States.