Brittney Griner: Russia frees US basketball star in a swap with arms dealer Viktor Bout

Watch: The moment Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout crossed on the airport tarmac in Abu Dhabi in the UAE

The US and Russia have exchanged jailed US basketball star Brittney Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, held in an American prison for 12 years.

President Joe Biden said Griner was safe and on a plane home from the United Arab Emirates.

“I’m glad to say Brittney’s in good spirits… she needs time and space to recover,” he said at the White House.

Bout – widely known as the “merchant of death” – has arrived back in Moscow, Russian media reports.

“In the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said ‘Get your things together’ and that was it,” Bout said in brief remarks to a reporter from national television, after landing in Russia.

Bout reportedly came down the airplane steps carrying a bouquet before embracing his mother and wife.

Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing cannabis oil and sent to a penal colony last month.

The Biden administration proposed a prisoner exchange in July, aware Moscow had long sought Bout’s release.

The elaborate swap involved two private planes bringing the pair to Abu Dhabi airport from Moscow and Washington, then flying them home.

Footage on Russian state media – apparently provided by Russian security services – showed them crossing on the tarmac with their respective teams.

“The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Speaking in the Oval Office, Brittney Griner’s wife Cherelle praised the efforts of the Biden administration in securing her release: “I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions.”

 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a leading role in mediation efforts, along with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

The heir to the Saudi throne has good relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and in September he helped coordinate a complex swap of hundreds of prisoners held by Russia and Ukraine.

But the White House denied any mediation had been involved. “The only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia,” said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Her only reason for flying to Moscow was to play in Russia during the off-season in the US. She told her Russian trial that the cannabis oil found in her bag had been an “honest mistake”.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken singled out the efforts of presidential envoy Roger Carstens, who accompanied Griner on the plane from the UAE.

Leading figures in US basketball welcomed her release, among them twice WNBA champion Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm.

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