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For Brittney Griner, months of Russian prisoners ended up on the runways of the UAE



© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of marijuana, is escorted before the trial in Khimki, a suburb Moscow, Russia July 7, 2022. RE

By Nandita Bose, Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After months of arduous negotiations with Moscow, it has become clear to the administration of President Joe Biden that it faces a dire choice – swap infamous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for the throne. American basketball star Brittney Griner or otherwise no Americans would return home. .

Thursday’s prisoner exchange, approved by Biden personally, took place over the past 48 hours, taking Griner from a Russian penal colony to Moscow and then to an airport, US officials said. in the United Arab Emirates.

Excluded from the deal is another prominent US prisoner, Paul Whelan, who told CNN by phone he was “very disappointed” that not much was done to secure his release. ta.

Griner arrived in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi by private jet from Moscow while Bout was flown in on a private jet from Washington.

In a video released by Russia’s TASS news agency, the two can be seen being escorted past each other on the runway on their way to the planes that will take them home. Griner, wearing a red jacket and dark pants, turned his back to the camera. Bout, nicknamed the “dealer of death,” embraced a Russian official, who greeted him and grinned as he was led away.

Griner’s 10 months of brutal captivity came to an end after months of fruitless negotiations between the United States and Russia, complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the deterioration of Russian-American relations to the worst. since the Cold War.

Biden personally has been keeping a close eye on the negotiations but only in recent weeks has he made the “very painful” decision to offer Bout clemency for the swap to go through, an official said. US senior said.

A joint UAE-Saudi statement said the UAE president and the crown prince led the reconciliation efforts to secure Griner’s release. However, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dismissed the notion of any intermediary, and US officials only expressed gratitude for the UAE providing “an important transit point.” important to facilitate exchange.”

A Biden administration official said US officials have urged the release of both Griner and Whelan, a former US Marine detained on what Washington calls “fake” espionage allegations, and have proposed multiple options including him in a prisoner exchange.

However, the official said Moscow was determined to handle Whelan’s case differently.

“This is not an option to bring any Americans home,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference with the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland. “The choice is one or not.”

SENSITIVE NEGOTIATIONS

While the exact content of the final negotiations remains unclear, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a week ago that discussions with Washington about the possibility of a prisoner swap were being held by the intelligence services of the two countries. carried out and he hoped they would be successful.

CIA Director William Burns and Russia’s foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin held talks in Turkey in November – the first publicly announced face-to-face meeting between top US officials. two countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

U.S. officials say they mainly focus on matters related to nuclear weapons, but Burns also cites cases of American citizens being detained in Russia. However, it remains unclear whether there has been any progress on this at the time.

A senior Gulf source said the UAE was trusted by both sides and “really helped facilitate the exchange”, adding that President Putin and UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan may have discussed the matter in a phone call on Wednesday.

Describing Griner’s ordeal as “hell” months, Biden said he had spoken to her and that she would be back in the United States within 24 hours.

Griner, 32, star of the Phoenix Mercury team of the National Women’s Basketball Association, was arrested February 17 at an airport outside Moscow for carrying a vape box containing cannabis oil in his luggage.

She was later found guilty of drug smuggling and sent to one of Russia’s most feared penal colonies, where former prisoners described torture, harsh beatings and slave labor conditions. rate.

Griner was exchanged for Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was convicted in the United States and jailed for 10 years.

During the prisoner exchange, chief US hostage negotiator Roger Carstens met Griner on the tarmac in the UAE. A US official said she was “very smiling and extremely grateful for all the efforts that both the USG (US government) and outside the government have made to bring her home”.

The swap left Whelan still in Russian custody, a situation his family called a “disaster”. But US officials insist he will not be forgotten and they are continuing to work to ensure his release.

“Negotiations … focused on bringing home both Americans wrongly detained in Russia,” one US official said. “Ultimately… clearly the choice, as I’ve emphasized, is to bring Brittney Griner home now or not to bring the Americans home now.”



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