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Brittney Griner freed in U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange

Russia has freed Brittney Griner in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange that brings the WNBA star back to the United States after almost 10 months` detention.

The swap, made at a time of heightened tensions over the invasion of Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden but carried a heavy price and left behind Paul Whelan, an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia.

Biden tweeted about Griner's release Thursday morning, writing that she is on her way back to the United States.

In an address from the White House, Biden said these "past few months have been hell for Brittney" but that she was in good spirits.

It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I want to thank all the hardworking public servants across my administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release.

" Cherelle Griner also spoke at the White House and thanked a number of people who helped secure her wife's release.

Brittney Griner was expected to be back in the U.

within 24 hours, Biden said.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad.

Biden's authorization to release notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, once nicknamed the Merchant of Death, underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

Russia's foreign ministry also confirmed the swap Thursday, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and that Bout has been flown home.

Video released by Russian state media on Thursday showed Griner boarding a plane and being told she was returning to the United States.

play0:41First look at Brittney Griner after her release from Russian prison Watch some of the first recorded video of Brittney Griner after she boards a charter plane and begins her return home to the United States.

Russian and U.

officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal after the U.

midterm elections.

A top Russian official had said last week that a deal was possible before year's end.

Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.

officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.

government have said are baseless.

Biden issued an executive grant of clemency to free the arms dealer from a federal prison in Illinois to effect the prisoner swap, showing the administration's willingness to exchange him to ensure Griner's freedom.

The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee -- not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

"It has been a total team effort," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters in discussing Griner's release.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Griner "has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we're thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends.

" He also thanked the "NBA and WNBA community" for their efforts to maintain awareness of Griner.

Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments but also emerged as a major inflection point in U.

-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow's war against Ukraine.

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