Sister of last American hostage held by Taliban begs Biden: ‘Get my brother home’

KeithBinns

(CHICAGO) — The sister of the last American hostage being held by the Taliban made a desperate plea this week to President Joe Biden as the U.S. military completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, telling ABC News in an exclusive interview, “I don’t think anybody can come home with their head held high until every stone has been turned.”

U.S. Navy veteran Mark Frerichs, 58, was abducted in Kabul in January 2020 after being lured to what he thought was a new business meeting — but which turned out to be a horrific ruse, family members and officials have said.

Frerichs’ sister, Charlene Cakora, said in an emotional interview that “it is almost too late now” to hope for either a negotiation or hostage rescue mission to secure her brother’s freedom from his Taliban captors, given the military’s hasty move to exit Afghanistan by July Fourth.

But she urged the commander-in-chief to pull out all the stops.

“President Biden,” she addressed the president during the ABC News interview at her home outside Chicago, “oh, please do everything you can to bring my brother home.”

“You have the power to bring my brother home, please get my brother home safely. We are relying on you,” Cakora pleaded, her voice cracking with emotion as she dabbed at tears on her cheeks. “He’s a good man. He deserves better. He does not deserve to be left behind. He’s an American citizen. And I know that you would not leave an American citizen behind, so please, I beg you, do everything you can to get my brother home.”

Cakora has not been given the opportunity to speak directly with either the former or current president.

Asked on Friday about Frerichs’ family’s concerns that their loved one will be left behind, the White House — without specifically naming Mark Frerichs — said they are working to free Americans in captivity.

“The president’s message is that he will continue to fight every day of his presidency to bring Americans home who are detained overseas, whether it’s in Afghanistan or any other country around the world,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “Again, we will have a diplomatic presence on the ground. We will continue to work closely with the government, with security support, humanitarian support, and there needs to be continued, a continued political process, ongoing negotiations.”

As the U.S. military completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of warfare following the 9/11 attacks, Cakora said she and her husband Chris feel like “our leverage is pretty much gone right now.”

Each week has brought the closing of another American base — Jalalabad and Kandahar, and this week Bagram Airfield — as the Taliban have waged an offensive against government forces, capturing dozens of districts countrywide.

“We can’t lose hope and we have to be strong for Mark, but it’s hard,” said Cakora, who said she’s been passing the time in her garden.

“I do a lot of weed pulling and I take all the frustration out with that,” she said. “And I try not to watch the news too much, as far as that. But it’s been really tough the past month due to the fact that our troops are coming home.”

U.S. officials and sources close to Frerichs’ family confirm that he is being held by a faction of the Taliban, the Haqqani network, known for abducting and holding Westerners captive inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. American diplomats have focused in recent weeks on engaging the government of Pakistan, whose intelligence services have a decades-long relationship with the Haqqani network.

In a statement to ABC News last week, the Pakistani government said there is “no evidence” that Frerichs is being held captive in their country, but pledged to assist in efforts to return him to his family.

Frerichs’ family, frustrated by the lack of progress, say they’re aggravated that it took almost a year and a half for U.S. officials to turn to Pakistan for help.

“They’re not using right methods,” Cakora said. “There’s capabilities, there are stones unturned I firmly believe, and I don’t think anybody can come home with their head held high until every stone has been turned.”

U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad cut an initial armistice deal with Taliban leadership in Doha, Qatar, last year — a month after Frerichs was kidnapped — but Khalilzad did not mention Frerichs publicly for several more months.

Cakora told ABC News that last fall, Taliban leaders in Doha said they were holding Frerichs hostage and had provided him with medical treatment — a startling admission she said Khalilzad shared with her.

“He [Khalilzad] said that he is healthy and well,” Cakora said of her brother. “And that’s pretty much it — he’s healthy and well and he has had some high blood pressure issues, and so he’s seeing the doctor for that, he’s taken medication for that.”

As ABC News has previously reported, Khalilzad has insisted in recent months that he has raised Frerichs’ captivity directly with his counterpart in Doha, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He has not disclosed what response he has received, but sources say the Taliban chief has not denied that the group’s Haqqani faction has held the American.

“In my meetings with the Taliban, I have demanded his release,” Khalilzad told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 18.

It remains unclear why the Taliban kidnapped and continue to hold Frerichs. In the past, hostages such as American Caitlan Coleman and U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl were used as political bargaining chips for the Taliban to demand prisoner releases.

No Taliban were released in exchange for Coleman, who was freed with her three children in 2017 after pressure was put on Pakistan by the Trump administration. Bergdahl, however, was traded for five Taliban who were being held at the Guantanamo prison, in a controversial decision by President Barack Obama.

Taliban negotiators in Doha have been seeking the release from a U.S. federal penitentiary of convicted heroin trafficker Hajji Bashir Noorzai, who was an early bankroller of the extremist group — but the Taliban has never specifically promised Frerichs’ freedom in exchange for Noorzai.

U.S. Department of Justice officials under the Obama, Trump and Biden presidencies have resisted freeing Noorzai from his two life sentences, officials have told ABC News.

Cakora is imploring all involved to free a man who has had no involvement in the “forever war.”

“I just want to tell anybody, the people who are holding Mark, I just want to let you know that Mark’s my brother and I want him home safe,” she said. “And wouldn’t you want your brother home if you were in the same situation?”

Barring the mercy of the Taliban, Cakora said that Biden should do whatever it takes to get the former Navy diver back to his hometown of Lombard, Illinois.

“I think I feel that if they leave a man behind that served this country for six years, I would think that, how could they sleep at night, you know? I mean, how are they sleeping at night knowing that they left a U.S. citizen behind — a U.S. veteran?” Cakora said. “They’re pretty cold if they’re not doing their job, because that’s their job.”

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Prince George twins with Prince William at soccer game

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(LONDON) — Being a prince has its perks!

Prince George and his parents, Prince William and Duchess Kate, were photographed at London’s Wembley Stadium on Tuesday, where they watched England take on Germany as part of the European Football Championship.

For the occasion, the 7-year-old wore a suit with a striped tie, which seem to have been perfectly coordinated with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s outfits.

Prince George seemed to bring some luck to his country’s soccer team, too: they won 2-0.

As president of England’s Football Association, Prince William, 39, often attends games. Prince George had been photographed wearing an England soccer jersey in 2019. He has also been spotted playing the sport with his siblings, Princess Charlotte, 6, and Prince Louis, 3.

Unsurprisingly, the royals appeared to have a great time at the game, tweeting afterward: “Incredible performance @England!”

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An inside look at the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan: ABC News exclusive

ABC News

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — The top U.S. general directing the full withdrawal of all 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan acknowledged in an exclusive interview with ABC News chief Global Affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz that the security situation in the country is “not good” and that the Taliban’s push to seize parts of the country is “concerning.”

Gen. Austin Scott Miller said he stands by his belief that there cannot be a military victor in Afghanistan, but he told Raddatz that as the Taliban continues with its military operations across the country, while also engaging in peace talks, “you’re starting to create conditions here that doesn’t — won’t look good for Afghanistan in the future if there is a push for a military takeover” that could result in a civil war.

“I think what you’re seeing — just if you look at the security situation — it’s not good,” Miller told Raddatz. “The Afghans have recognized it’s not good. The Taliban are on the move.”

Miller explained that while the Taliban are participating in peace talks in Qatar with the government of Afghanistan and expressing sentiments favoring a political settlement “you have an offensive operation going on across the country by the Taliban.”

He has previously said neither side can win militarily in Afghanistan.

“I still stand by those words,” Miller said. “You’re starting to create conditions here that doesn’t won’t look good for Afghanistan in the future if there is a push for a military takeover.”

Miller said “we should be concerned” by reports of increasing Taliban violence as Taliban fighters have seized dozens of Afghan government district centers throughout Afghanistan.

“The loss of terrain and the rapidity of that loss of terrain has to be a concerning one,” Miller said, noting that it can lower morale among military forces and civilians. “So as you watch the Taliban moving across the country, what you don’t want to have happen is that the people lose hope and they believe they now have a foregone conclusion presented to them.”

Miller said Afghanistan’s new Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi “understands the gravity of the situation” and is moving to strategically consolidate Afghan security forces to maintain the fight against the Taliban and not necessarily defend every district center.

“They’re going to need to do that” Miller said, and “they’re going to have to choose where they want to fight the Taliban as they continue to move forward.”

Miller also said he understood concerns by residents in Kabul that the Taliban would like to attack Afghanistan’s capital in the future.

“If you go back to what the Taliban’s objectives are, they want to take over and so at some point that implies that at some point they are in Kabul,” he said. “And certainly some of them remember what it was like the last time under with the Taliban regime.”

Departing Bagram

ABC News accompanied Miller to the sprawling Bagram Air Base located 40 miles east of Kabul that is the main transportation hub for the hundreds of cargo flights that have taken out U.S. military equipment and personnel over the past two months.

“Where we’re standing right now is this equipment that’s waiting to get on aircraft and that will redeploy from Afghanistan as part of our order in retrograde,” Miller told Raddatz, using the military’s official term for the full withdrawal.

“What’s happening here is also happening at other airfields around the country, particularly in the north,” said Miller, who stressed that the objective is for a safe and orderly withdrawal that will protect American and coalition forces as they depart the country.

Ultimately Miller said that the base would be turned over to Afghan security forces, much as is happening with other U.S. inventory in the country.

“The idea is that there is equipment that stays here that supports them, certainly in a strategic airfield,” said Miller. “But again, we’re looking to make sure that they have the ability to absorb it and secure it as we go forward.”

More than half of the U.S. military equipment in Afghanistan has already been shipped out of the country as the U.S. forces quickly move towards pulling out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, as ordered by President Joe Biden. But it appears that the withdrawal could be completed much sooner than that with one U.S. official telling ABC News that it could be completed as soon as July.

The pace of the operations at Bagram has been eye-opening for the experienced logistics officers in charge of the operation.

“It’s a little surreal to see things very bare and empty,” said Col. Erin Miller, a logistics officer overseeing the withdrawal. “And as we continue to move forward with the retrograde, seeing the equipment leave out, it truly is surreal.”

Maintaining security

With all the billions of dollars the United States has invested in training and equipping Afghanistan’s security forces, it will be up to them to maintain security.

“What we’ve said is this is Afghanistan, this is their country,” said Miller. “The Afghan security forces have to hold.”

The U.S. military will continue to provide Afghan forces with financial support and continued assistance for Afghan air force maintenance crews, but as the U.S. completes its withdrawal, there will not be a physical U.S. military presence in Afghanistan aside from the hundreds of personnel who will be stationed at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Americans will also continue to fly “over-the-horizon” reconnaissance missions and counterterrorism missions from countries in the Persian Gulf area focused on al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, not the Taliban.

While the U.S. is continuing to provide defensive airstrikes in support of Afghan ground troops during the withdrawal, U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Frank McKenzie has indicated that airstrikes later will only be directed against the two terror groups if they are planning to attack the American homeland or allies.

Miller praised the effectiveness of Afghanistan’s Air Force but indicated that the possibility of U.S. defensive airstrikes in the future will continue “to be discussed as we move forward.”

“I think we need to see how that how that lands,” he told Raddatz.

The withdrawal in Afghanistan after an almost 20-year presence has drawn comparisons to the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which created a security vacuum that led to the rise of ISIS and the eventual return of U.S. forces in 2014.

“Do you think about Iraq when we’re leaving here and what happened in Iraq when we left?” Raddatz asked Miller.

“Absolutely, I mean that’s on everybody’s mind,” said Miller. “These are judgments that we have to make balanced against our national interests.”

Friends in need

Miller first served in Afghanistan in December, 2001 as a special operations commander and has deployed at least eight other times to Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations.

As he prepares to leave Afghanistan for the final time Miller described mixed feelings both professionally and personally.

“On the professional side, what you’re seeing is a — what I would call — a historic retrograde being done under at least the threat of conflict,” said Miller. “So far, it has not been contested, at least to date. So you see that and you know the goodness that’s taking place there, watching our service members as well as our allies doing this as professionally as possible.”

He said that after 20 years he has developed friends in Afghanistan, but “I don’t like leaving friends in need and I know my friends are in need.”

“As we continue to move down the retrograde and withdraw forces, there’s less and less I can directly offer them in terms of assistance,” he said. “So that’s hard.”

For example, he said Afghan Defense Minister Mohammadi has asked him occasionally for some type of assistance — provided in years past — and “there’s points where I have to tell him I won’t be able to do that.”

“It’s a tough, tough business, it is tough,” said Miller.

“We knew we were going to have to leave at some point,” he continued. ” I don’t know that you could find a right time, but so know what you are trying to do is, as you depart, ensure that the security assistance that can continue does continue; that you keep those lines open. So even as we discuss — we call it ‘departure’ — it doesn’t mean a full break of the relationship.”

Gen. Haibatullah Alizai, the commander of the Afghan Army’s Special Operations Command acknowledged that there will be challenges ahead for Afghanistan’s military, but he expressed confidence that his forces and Afghanistan will be able to endure after all U.S. troops have left Afghanistan.

“Absolutely, we will survive,” said Alizai. “Afghanistan will survive.”

“We have learned a lot from our friends and partners in the last two decades,” he said. “Based on those lessons we are going to expand and extend and make our army great to make Afghanistan keep the situation in Afghanistan the same or better than today. “

“I’m really optimistic about this and we are really committed to this fight against terrorism and to keep Afghanistan safe for the future,” said Alizai.

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Blinken calls on coalition partners to repatriate ISIS fighters held in Syria

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(ROME) — Kicking off the ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Rome on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on countries to “repatriate, rehabilitate, and where applicable, prosecute their citizens” imprisoned in Syria fighting for ISIS.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have detained 10,000 ISIS fighters, a situation Blinken described as “untenable” in the long run.

“It just can’t persist indefinitely,” he said.

Great Britain, France and other countries have been reluctant to repatriate ISIS fighters, amid concerns about domestic terrorism and the unpopularity of doing so across Europe. (Former President Donald Trump threatened to “release” ISIS fighters into France two years ago.)

He noted the actions of several nations, singling out the host nation Italy as “one of the few Western European countries willing to return nationals from the region” — including a female fighter and her children.

Blinken also underlined the need for the coalition to expand its efforts in Africa and deny the terror group and its affiliates new recruits by “undermining its brand” and “sharing positive alternative narratives” online and on social media.

“We are seeing fighters of 13 and 14 years old, take up weapons to kill people, and we have to get at this from every possible angle,” he said.

Blinken announced plans for the United States to provide another $436 million in humanitarian aid to support Syrian refugees – bringing the total U.S. humanitarian response to the Syrian conflict to roughly $13.5 billion since 2011.

He also praised the group for its “significant achievements” in the fight against ISIS, noting that “the movement of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq has virtually ceased.”

He announced new U.S. sanctions against a senior leader in ISIS Greater Sahara, the affiliate group operating in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Blinken closed by praising the partnership against ISIS in the Middle East and across the globe.

“We’ve made great progress because we’ve been working together, so we hope you’ll keep an eye on the fight, keep up the fight against this terrorist organization until it is decisively defeated,” he said.

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Moscow court rejects appeal by Trevor Reed, American ex-Marine held ‘hostage’ by Russia

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(MOSCOW) — A Moscow court has rejected an appeal from one of two former Marines who U.S. officials believe Russia is holding hostage and whose cases have become the focus of a potential prisoner swap between the two countries.

Trevor Reed and another ex-Marine, Paul Whelan, have spent about two years in detention in Russia on separate charges U.S. officials say were fabricated to seize them as bargaining chips.

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Americans’ cases during their summit in Switzerland this month, after which the Kremlin signaled it might be prepared to discuss a deal for their release.

Reed, 29, had appealed a nine-year prison sentence that he received last July in a trial denounced by the U.S.

Moscow’s City Court on Monday rejected that appeal, leaving the sentence unchanged. The ruling potentially means that Reed, who is being held in a pre-trial detention center in Moscow, could now be moved to a prison camp away from the capital.

The ruling was expected by Reed’s representatives and his lawyers said they would now appeal it at a higher court in Russia and, if necessary, take it to the country’s Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

In a video released by the court, Reed could be heard saying “no surprises here” as he was led out of a glass cage in handcuffs.

The court did not allow journalists to enter the courtroom, citing coronavirus restrictions.

Reed, whose family lives in Texas, fell into the hands of Russian police following a drunken party in Moscow in August 2019, when he was visiting his girlfriend in the city and studying Russian. Reed was initially taken to a police station to sober up but after he was questioned by agents from Russia’s FSB intelligence service, police abruptly brought charges of assaulting an officer against him, according to his family.

Russia has repeatedly floated the idea of trading Reed and Whelan for Russian citizens jailed in the U.S. Whelan was arrested by FSB agents in late December 2018 and then sentenced to 16 years in prison on spying charges that his family and U.S. officials say are also fabricated.

The Biden administration has said freeing the two men is a top priority and the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, attended Monday’s hearing.

“Another absurd miscarriage of justice in Russia the world watches,” Sullivan said in a statement after the hearing. “We will not cease to advocate for Trevor and for US citizens denied an open and fair judicial process, a universal human right.”

In his closing statement that he read to the court, Reed accused his trial judge of ignoring “all evidence,” including video from a police car interior that he said showed the officers who testified in court had lied.

He noted the extraordinary length of his sentence, which he said was longer than other prisoners had received for being convicted of murder. Some fellow prisoners had nicknamed him “Yury Gagarin” he said, after the first man in space, “because I was the first person who received such a sentence for a minor offense.”

He accused authorities of violating his human rights in jail by denying him medical care, blocking contact with the embassy and his family and also placing him in a psychiatric hospital for a time.

“I regret that I was kept in a place with a hole in the floor instead of a toilet and blood on the walls, in places where people made suicide attempts or successfully deprived themselves or others of life. I was kept in places with rats, fed food comparable to prison food in the Middle Ages,” Reed said in the statement, written extracts of which were provided to ABC News by his family.

Although Reed could now be moved to a prison camp, his lawyers on Monday said they did not expect that to happen before his new appeals were resolved or he was released in a possible swap.

Hopes that a deal to get the men home might be possible following Putin and Biden’s summit.

After the summit, Putin told reporters “a compromise might be found” over the Americans’ detention and the Kremlin has since said the two sides should sit down and begin work on getting an agreement.

Sullivan on Monday declined to comment on any possible negotiations, except to say that he expected discussions to take place.

“I expect future discussions between our governments on getting both of those Americans released,” Sullivan said outside the court. “It is of great importance to President Biden.”

One major obstacle to any deal previously has been the Russian proposal that it include Viktor Bout, one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers and whose release is viewed as a non-starter by U.S. officials.

But Russia has also hinted at other Russians currently serving sentences in the U.S. that it would like released, including Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced to 20 years in prison on drug smuggling charges after he was arrested in a DEA sting in Liberia in 2010.

After the Geneva summit, Reed’s parents said Putin’s words had given them hope a deal was possible.

“I think it’s huge. I really do,” Reed’s mother, Paula Reed, told ABC News after Putin spoke.

Biden told reporters at the summit that his administration would follow through on the discussion with Russia about the two men and that he would “not walk away” from them.

ABC News’ Tanya Stukalova in Moscow contributed to this report.

 

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