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Taliban releases American hostage in prisoner swap with the U.S.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today the U.S. announced the release of a jailed Afghan drug lord in exchange for the Taliban granting freedom to Mark Frerichs. He's an American citizen who's been held captive in Afghanistan for the past 2 1/2 years. Frerichs' well-being has been a matter of special concern ever since the Taliban took over Afghanistan more than a year ago. This is the most recent in a series of high-profile U.S. prisoner swaps. Michele Kelemen joins us now from New York to tell us more. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Michele, let's dig into what happened today. Who is Mark Frerichs? And who is the Afghan drug lord that the U.S. released in exchange for him?

KELEMEN: So Frerichs is a 60-year-old Navy veteran and engineer. He was working as a contractor in Afghanistan, and he was detained back in January of 2020. That was a time, by the way, when the Trump administration was negotiating a deal with the Taliban. And he was held throughout the whole U.S. withdrawal from the country, so getting him out now is a big deal for the U.S. He was exchanged for a man named Bashir Noorzai, who's been in U.S. custody for the past 17 years. Noorzai was convicted of heroin trafficking. Prosecutors said he had a global drug network that supported the Taliban. And officials said it became clear in their negotiations with the Taliban that trading him was really the only way to get Frerichs home, so President Biden granted Noorzai clemency.

SUMMERS: What do we know about where Mark Frerichs is now, and what have you been hearing from his family?

KELEMEN: Well, we know he was taken to Qatar, where he met with the U.S. Envoy for Hostage Affairs, but U.S. officials aren't saying a whole lot more about his travel plans beyond that. They say his health was stable and that he was being offered whatever kind of support he needs. His sister put out a statement saying that she's glad he's safe. She says her family never gave up hope that he would survive this and come home safely. There were also statements from the two senators in his home state of Illinois, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, welcoming his release. They've both been advocating for this for a long time now.

SUMMERS: Michele, I imagine for some who are watching this development - it raises questions about what's possible for other Americans who have been held captive, like Brittney Griner, who's imprisoned in Russia.

KELEMEN: Yeah. You know, Juana, the Biden administration actually released a Russian drug trafficker in exchange for a former Marine, Trevor Reed, earlier this year. And they're talking about exchanging a major Russian arms dealer for Griner and for another former Marine, Paul Whelan. The Russians kind of say they're ready for those talks, but they blame the U.S. embassy for a stalemate. The State Department says that the U.S. has made a significant offer, and they followed up repeatedly. The Russians should take the deal on the table, one official told me today. But one problem in all of this is, how do you deter countries like Russia, like others from doing this again and again? If you keep swapping prisoners, does that, you know, make it more enticing to pick up Americans abroad? That's a danger and something that the State Department's having to deal with.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen speaking with us from New York. Michele, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.