Taliban Says It is Unaware of Missing US Contractor

The Taliban said Friday it has conveyed to the United States the insurgent group is not holding an American hostage missing in Afghanistan.

U.S. envoy for Afghan peace and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has confirmed he called for the release of Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran-turned contractor, in his meeting Wednesday with Qatar-based Taliban leaders.

Meanwhile, Afghan officials said an insurgent-planted roadside bomb explosion in eastern Khost province killed the provincial police chief and his three security guards. The Taliban claimed responsibility for plotting the deadly attack.

U.S. officials and family members say Frerichs was abducted in late January. No group in Afghanistan has since claimed responsibility in a country ravaged and mired by years of violence.

“Yes, Dr. Khalilzad asked for his release and he has made similar requests in our previous meetings with him,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told VOA Friday.

“But from our side, it has again been conveyed to him that Mark Frerichs is not with us, nor did we capture him,” said the insurgent official from the group’s political office in the Qatari capital of Doha.

U.S. officials reportedly have blamed the dreaded Haqqani network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban. But Khalilzad’s statement is the first time the Trump administration has publicly spoken about the kidnapping of Frerichs.

Shaheen insisted that had the Taliban kidnapped the American man, it would have “explicitly told him [Khalilzad] that, yes, he is with us in the same manner in which way we earlier had Americans with us, and we had released videos and shared their information with media. But this is not the case now.”

Khalilzad tweeted Thursday that he had a “lengthy” overnight meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban political deputy chief and head of its Doha office.

“We sought progress on a range of topics: a reduction in violence, humanitarian cease-fire … to allow for better cooperation on managing the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, acceleration of prisoner releases by both sides, actions necessary to secure the freedom of U.S. citizen Mark Frerichs, regional & international support for the peace process, and movement to intra-Afghan negotiations,” Khalilzad wrote.

After visiting India, and his scheduled meetings Friday in Pakistan, Khalilzad said he will go back to Qatar to meet again with Taliban leaders.

The Afghan-born American diplomat negotiated and signed a landmark agreement with the Taliban in February. During those marathon talks between the two adversaries, Khalilzad had managed to secure the release of two Western hostages, U.S. Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, in a prisoner swap with the Taliban last November.

The February 29 U.S.-Taliban agreement is aimed at ending the nearly 19-year-old Afghan war, America’s longest. The pact requires U.S. and coalition troops to exit Afghanistan by July 2021 in return for Taliban counterterrorism assurances and engagement in talks with other Afghan groups to end decades of hostilities in the country.

Progress toward next crucial steps outlined in the deal, however, has been extremely slow.

The Afghan government, which was not part of the deal, has to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 government personnel being held by the insurgent group before negotiations could open between Afghan parties to the war.

Kabul so far has freed 933 detainees and the insurgents have released 155 prisoners. The Taliban is linking its participation in intra-Afghan talks to the release of all insurgent inmates.

Washington has been pressing both sides to accelerate the prisoner swap and open intra-Afghan talks that originally were scheduled to begin March 10.

The Taliban, meanwhile, also has stepped up battlefield attacks in recent days, ignoring domestic and international calls for a temporary cease-fire in the wake of coronavirus outbreak in Afghanistan. The Afghan government cites the rise in violence for its reluctance to free Taliban prisoners.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul condemned Thursday’s bombing that killed Khost police chief, Sayed Ahmad Babazai, and his colleagues. Provincial officials told VOA the slain police officer was traveling to an area where Afghan forces were under attack from Taliban insurgents when his vehicle struck a landmine.

But the insurgents insist a permanent cease-fire will be on the agenda when intra-Afghan talks begin to discuss a future power sharing arrangement in post-war Afghanistan.