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Brittney Griner lands back on US soil after being freed from Russia in prisoner swap for Viktor Bout

Brittney Griner has landed back on US soil for the first time in 10 months after she was released from Russian custody in a prisoner swap with “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout.

A plane carrying the WNBA star landed at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio at around 5.30am ET on Friday morning.

She will be examined and receive any necessary medical treatment at the army medical centre before returning to her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.

US officials announced on Thursday that Ms Griner, 32, was finally free from Russian prison after the Biden administration negotiated a prisoner swap with Moscow for notorious arms dealer Bout.

The WNBA star had spent the last 10 months in prison in Russia after being detained at an airport in February for allegedly carrying illegal cannibas oil in her luggage.

Footage showed the one-for-one exchange of Ms Griner and Bout taking place on the tarmac of a runway in the UAE on Thursday, following weeks of negotiations between Washington and Moscow.

The deal failed to include US Marine Paul Whelan who has been detained in Russia for the last four years.

Mr Whelan told CNN he was “greatly disappointed” to learn he was not part of the prisoner swap, saying: “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

President Joe Biden insisted on Thursday that “we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan” and vowed to “never give up” securing his release, as the swap divided opinion across the country.

The White House was also forced to deny claims made by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that MBS negotiated the deal.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted on Thursday that – despite the prisoner exchange taking place on middle eastern soil – the only nations involved in the negotiations were the US and Russia.

“The only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia,” she said.

“There was no mediation involved.”

Plane carrying Brittney Griner lands in San Antonio (Reuters)
Plane carrying Brittney Griner lands in San Antonio (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought to take credit for the release of Ms Griner, issuing a joint statement claiming that the Saudi Crown Prince acted as a mediator in helping secure the deal.

Ms Griner’s ordeal began back on 17 February when she was stopped by Russian customs officials while travelling through the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. The Phoenix Mercury star played basketball in Russia in the WNBA’s off-season.

She was carrying two cartridges for personal use containing just 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil, according to court records.

The basektball star was taken into custody and charged with large-scale transportation of illegal narcotics – a charge that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Her detainment was largely regarded as a political move from Moscow, coming just days before President Vladimir Putin declared a full-scale war on Ukraine.

Brittney Griner smiles on the plane as she heads back to the US
Brittney Griner smiles on the plane as she heads back to the US

At her trial in July, Ms Griner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

On 17 November, she was moved to a penal colony in Mordovia.

For the past 10 months, Ms Griner’s family and supporters had been urging the Biden administration to secure her release.

In June, the White House offered to exchange both Ms Griner and Mr Whelan for Bout.

This deal was ultimately rejected with Mr Biden telling reporters on Thursday that “Russia is treating Paul’s case differently” and that “this was not a choice about which American to release”.