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UPDATE 2-Blinken says U.S. made 'substantial offer' to Russia to bring home detained Americans

UPDATE 2-Blinken says U.S. made 'substantial offer' to Russia to bring home detained Americans

Reuters · 07/27/2022 15:12
UPDATE 2-Blinken says U.S. made 'substantial offer' to Russia to bring home detained Americans

Adds Blinken comments, statement from Whelan family, background

By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk

- The United States has made "a substantial offer" to Russia to release U.S. citizens detained there, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, adding that he would be pressing his Russian counterpart to respond in a conversation planned for the coming days.

Washington offered Moscow a deal to bring home WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan weeks ago, Blinken said at a State Department conference, and hoped to advance the process when he speaks to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

"There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal. And I'll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution," Blinken said.

He declined to say what the United States was offering in return. CNN reported that Washington was willing to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25 year-prison sentence in the United States, as part of a deal to secure the release of the two Americans.

Asked if U.S. President Joe Biden was involved in the process, Blinken said: "He signs off on any proposal that we make. Certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including this specific case."

Families of hostages and detainees have been increasing pressure on Biden, most recently in the case of two-time Olympic medalist Griner, who has been held since February and is on trial on drug charges.

Whelan was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison in Russia, accused of spying. He denied spying and said he was set up in a sting operation. Washington demanded his release.

The plight of American detainees has gained visibility after Griner's arrest at a Moscow airport and the release in April of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed at a time when U.S. relations with Moscow are at their worst in decades over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Reed was detained for three years. In a prisoner exchange, the United States commuted the prison sentence of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of cocaine smuggling.

Blinken said his planned call with Lavrov, the first such conversation between the two diplomats since before the start of Russian invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 24, will be a about Ukraine.

The White House also declined to go into the details of the U.S. proposal but said that Biden directed his security team to pursue every avenue to bring Griner and Whelan home safely to their loved ones.

Whelan's family welcomed of the U.S. offer. "We hope the Russian government responds to the U.S. government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family," David Whelan, Paul's brother, said in a statement.

"The sooner the better," he added.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Grant McCool)

((humeyra.pamuk@thomsonreuters.com; +1 202 3105694; Reuters Messaging: Twitter: @humeyra_pamuk))