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Freed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout says he ‘wholeheartedly’ supports Ukraine war and would volunteer if he could

<i>U.S. Department of Justice/Getty Images</i><br/>
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U.S. Department of Justice/Getty Images

By Darya Tarasova and Sharon Braithwaite, CNN

Freed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout said on Saturday he “wholeheartedly” supports Moscow’s so-called “military operation” in Ukraine and that if he had the opportunity and necessary skills, he would “certainly go as a volunteer.”

Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers, was released Thursday from US detention in a prisoner swap for US basketball star Brittney Griner.

Bout made the remarks in a video interview with Kremlin-controlled TV network RT. He was interviewed by Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights enthusiast-turned TV personality who now works for the network.

In the interview, he denied any connections with the Taliban and that he supplied arms to Afghanistan.

When asked if he had a portrait of President Vladimir Putin in his prison cell, Bout said: “Yes, always. Why not? I’m proud that I’m Russian and that our president is Putin.”

The former Soviet military officer was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Bout, who had maintained his innocence, is believed to be in his 50s, with his age in dispute because of different passports and documents.

Griner, 32, returned to the United States early Friday after being released from custody in an exchange for an international arms dealer. She was “in good spirits” and “incredibly gracious,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told CNN.

Griner — who had played in the off-season for a Russian women’s basketball team — was arrested on drugs charges at an airport in the Moscow region in February. Despite her testimony that she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil found in her luggage, she was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and moved to a penal colony in Mordovia in mid-November after losing her appeal.

The swap, which US President Joe Biden confirmed on Thursday, did not include another American that the State Department has declared wrongfully detained, Paul Whelan. Whelan was arrested on alleged espionage charges in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in a trial that US officials have called unfair.

The families of Griner and Whelan had urged the White House to secure their release, including via prisoner exchange if necessary.

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CNN’s Travis Caldwell, Tina Burnside, Rosalina Nieves, Rosa Flores and Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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