The UAE and Saudi Arabia mediated the release of American basketball star Brittney Griner from Russia through a prisoner swap, the two nations said in a statement on Thursday.
Griner, who Washington claimed had been wrongfully detained in Russia over alleged drug offences, was released on Thursday and was heading back home via the UAE, US President Joe Biden said.
“The UAE and Saudi foreign ministries declare the success of Emirati and Saudi mediation led by UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to release and swap two prisoners between the US and Russia,” a joint statement read.
“The UAE received on December 8, 2022, American citizen Brittney Griner on a private plane coming from Moscow after she was released by Russian authorities, coincidently with the arrival of Russian citizen Viktor Bout on a private plane from Washington after he was released by US authorities, in the attendance of officials from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“The success of the mediation efforts was a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship between their two countries and the United States of America and the Russian Federation.”
The mediation also “highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties”.
After speaking with Griner earlier in the day, Mr Biden said “she is safe” and added that she would be back in the US within 24 hours.
The president thanked his administration and the UAE for enabling Griner’s release.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also praised the move. He spoke of his “deep appreciation” for the UAE’s role in Griner’s release and said he was in contact with her family.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Griner had been traded for Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer being held in the US.
The US team was unable to secure the release of a second US citizen from Russia.
Paul Whelan has been held in Russia since 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of espionage.
“This was not a choice of which American. The choice was one or none,” said Mr Blinken.
Whelan’s brother said on Thursday that his family supports the deal that brought back Griner.
“I think President Biden made the right decision,” David Whelan told MSNBC. “His job is to protect all Americans. It would’ve been wrong for him to leave behind an American when he had the ability to bring them home.”