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US basketball star Brittney Griner freed in prisoner swap with Russia

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US basketball star Brittney Griner was freed in a prisoner swap with Russia on Thursday, a diplomatic breakthrough in Russia’s more than nine-month war with Ukraine.

Griner was released in exchange for Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer who was serving a 25-year sentence.

US president Joe Biden wrote on Twitter on Thursday he had spoken with Griner. “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” he said, along with photos of the basketball player’s wife Cherelle Griner in the Oval Office.

Brittney Griner had been serving a nine-year prison sentence after she was arrested at a Russian airport in February with vaping cartridges containing hashish oil.

American officials have been working for months to secure her release, and floated their “substantial offer” to swap Griner with Bout, known as the “merchant of death”, over the summer.

Talks are said to have gathered steam in recent weeks. The Biden administration has also been pressing to free another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, a former Marine who has been in Russian custody since 2018 and was later convicted of espionage.

Bout is a notorious arms dealer whose exploits inspired the 2005 film Lord of War. He was serving a 25-year term for conspiring to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Whelan was not released as part of the deal. Russia had tried to couple his release with that of Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder in Germany last year. His family said he was recently hospitalised with Covid-19.

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