© Reuters. A person steps off a plane carrying U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, after her release from prison in Russia, in San Antonio, Texas, U.S., December 9, 2022. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Basketball star Brittney Griner landed in the United States on Friday after 10 months in custody in Russia following a prisoner swap with arms dealer Viktor Bout, who flew home hours ago there to hug his family on the airport runway in Moscow.
“They said she was in very good spirits, appeared to be in good health,” White House spokesman John Kirby (NYSE: New York) told MSNBC in an interview citing US officials in San Francisco. Antonio, Texas, where she arrived just before dawn.
Thursday’s securing of the exchange, after months of strenuous negotiations, was a rare example of US-Russian cooperation in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, though the Kremlin was quick to say it was. did not show an improved relationship.
Russian state media hailed the swap as a victory for Moscow, following the release of a man the US Justice Department described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. who has sold weapons globally to terrorists and enemies of America for decades. Bout has always denied the allegations.
US President Joe Biden, in announcing her release on Thursday, said the swap ended what he described as “hell” months for Griner, 32, who was twice. Olympic gold medalist and star of the Phoenix Mercury Women’s National Basketball Association.
“Glad to have Brittney back on American soil. Welcome BG back home!” US Special Envoy for the President Roger Carstens, chief US hostage coordinator, said in a Twitter post.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, in a CNN interview, credited the US negotiators, adding: “Brittney really deserves to be at home. She was wrongfully detained and we I’m glad she’s reunited with her family today.”
Griner, who flew to San Antonio before dawn on Friday, was arrested February 17 at a Moscow airport after a vape box containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, was found in his luggage. Teacher.
As Griner flew home, Bout arrived in Moscow and hugged his mother and wife after stepping on the runway, television images showed.
He said it was difficult to describe his feelings in an interview with state news agency RT. He also said he did not experience much anti-Russian sentiment during his time in captivity in the United States.
Bout dismissed the idea that Russia was in the best interest of the exchange or that it made Biden look “weak”.
“I wouldn’t draw such a conclusion… I’m pretty sure neither our management nor anyone else would think that way – whether you’re weak or not,” he said. speak.
Biden personally has been closely monitoring the negotiations but only in recent weeks has he made the “very painful” decision to offer Bout leniency to make the swap, a senior official said. US high told reporters on Thursday.
Griner is currently visiting the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for an evaluation, Kirby told MSNBC. Her family asked for privacy when she moved home.
Griner, who had been detained in Russia since a week before the invasion of Ukraine, traveled from a Russian penal colony to Moscow, and then to Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates, where the concert took place. Out of the exchange, the two passed each other on the street. runway, US officials said.
“Bilateral relations continue to be in a bad state,” TASS news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying on Friday.
“Negotiations revolved around the topic of exchange,” he said. “It would probably be wrong to draw any hypothetical conclusion that this could be a step towards overcoming the crisis in bilateral relations,” he said. “.
However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Moscow and Washington will continue to negotiate directly on the possibility of a prisoner exchange, without intermediaries, RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Russian state news agencies also quoted Ryabkov as saying that lower-ranking Russian and American diplomats met in Istanbul on Friday to discuss a number of issues.
The two countries also exchanged prisoners in April when Russia released former US Marine Trevor Reed and the US released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
The White House said this week’s prisoner exchange did not change Washington’s support for the Ukrainians in the wake of Russia’s invasion in February, which Moscow called a “special military operation” aimed at “destroying Ukraine.” ice” and disarmed neighboring countries.