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WNBA star Brittney Griner released from Russian detention in prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer

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WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian detention in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a source familiar
Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” is a former Soviet military officer 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.

Moscow had slammed his sentencing in 2012 as “baseless and biased” and Bout has maintained he is innocent.
Griner — who had for years played in the off-season for a Russian women’s basketball team, had been detained since February, when she was arrested on drug smuggling charges at an airport in the Moscow region. 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 was moved to a penal colony in Mordovia in mid-November after losing her appeal.

The swap did not include another American that the State Department has declared wrongfully detailed, Paul Whelan.

He is a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen — was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges he has vehemently denied. Whelan had been carrying out his sentence at a labor camp in Mordovia, an eight-hour drive from Moscow, where he told CNN in June 2021 he spent his days working in a clothing factory that he called a “sweatshop.”

US basketball star Brittney Griner’s freedom ultimately hinged on the release of a convicted Russian arms dealer, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers, whose life story inspired a Hollywood film.

Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer, is currently 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 has maintained he is innocent.
The Kremlin has long called for his release, slamming his sentencing in 2012 as “baseless and biased.”

The Russian businessman who speaks six languages eluded international arrest warrants and asset freezes for years. He was arrested in a sting operation in 2008 led by US drug enforcement agents in Thailand posing as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC. He was eventually extradited to the US in 2010 after a protracted court proceeding.

“Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe,” said Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan when Bout was sentenced in New York in 2012.

“He was finally brought to justice in an American court for agreeing to provide a staggering number of military-grade weapons to an avowed terrorist organization committed to killing Americans.”
The trial honed in on Bout’s role in supplying weapons to FARC, a guerrilla group that waged an insurgency in Colombia until 2016. The US said the weapons were intended to kill US citizens.

But Bout’s history in the arms trade extended much further afield. He has been accused of assembling a fleet of cargo planes to traffic military-grade weapons to conflict zones around the world since the 1990s, fueling bloody conflicts from Liberia to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Allegations of trafficking activities in Liberia prompted US authorities to freeze his American assets in 2004 and blocked any US transactions.

Bout has repeatedly maintained that he operated legitimate businesses and acted as a mere logistics provider. He is believed to be in his 50s, with his age in dispute because of different passports and documents.
Source: CNN

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ECOWAS REACTS TO NIGER, MALI, BURKINA FASO EXIT FROM THE BLOC

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By Ojone Grace Odaudu

The Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Commission) says it is yet to receive a formal notification from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso about their intention to quit the regional bloc.

It was reacting after the military juntas from the three Member-States withdrew from ECOWAS with immediate effect.

The three countries, which mulled a counter force, Alliance of Sahel States, against the regional bloc after the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Niger, announced the development on Sunday.

ECOWAS under the leadership of President Bola Tinubu had threatened military action if the Niger junta refused to transfer power.

But the regime stood its ground as Mali and Burkina Faso vowed to fight in defence of Niger.

On Sunday, the leaders of the three Sahel nations said they had taken a sovereign decision to pull out their countries from ECOWAS.

However, in a communique issued by the ECOWAS Commission in Abuja on Sunday evening, the body said it had been working with the three countries for restoration of constitutional order.

It insisted that Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso remained important members of the Community and the Authority of Heads of State and Government remained committed to finding a negotiated solution to the political impasse.

The communique reads: “The attention of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Commission) has been drawn to a statement broadcast on the National Televisions of Mali and Niger announcing the decision of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to withdraw from ECOWAS.

“The ECOWAS Commission is yet to receive any direct formal notification from the three Member States about their intention to withdraw from the Community.

“The ECOWAS Commission, as directed by the Authority of Heads of State and Government, has been working assiduously with these countries for the restoration of constitutional order. Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali remain important members of the Community and the Authority remains committed to finding a negotiated solution to the political impasse.

“The ECOWAS Commission remains seized with the development and shall make further pronouncements as the situation evolves.”

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We’re No Longer Part of ECOWAS, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger Announce in a Communique

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Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso announced Sunday they would be leaving the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) “without delay”, citing the injustice of sanctions ECOWAS levied on each country following takeovers by military juntas.

The military regimes in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger announced Sunday their immediate withdrawal from the West African bloc ECOWAS.

The leaders of the three Sahel nations issued a statement saying it was a “sovereign decision” to leave the Economic Community of West African States “without delay”.

Struggling with jihadist violence and poverty, the regimes have had tense ties with ECOWAS since coups took place in Niger last July, Burkina Faso in 2022 and Mali in 2020.

All three were suspended from ECOWAS with Niger and Mali facing heavy sanctions.

They have hardened their positions in recent months and joined forces in an “Alliance of Sahel States”.

A French military withdrawal from the Sahel — the region along the Sahara desert across Africa — has heightened concerns over the conflicts spreading southward to Gulf of Guinea states Ghana, Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast.

The prime minister appointed by Niger’s military regime on Thursday blasted ECOWAS for “bad faith” after the bloc largely shunned a planned meeting in Niamey.

Niger had hoped for an opportunity to talk through differences with fellow states of ECOWAS which has has cold-shouldered Niamey, imposing heavy economic and financial sanctions following the military coup that overthrew elected president Mohamed Bazoum.

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Ringleaders Of Sierra Leone Coup Plot Under Arrest As Calm Returns

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A military armoury in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown came under attack on Sunday, the government said, as it imposed an immediate national curfew. (Photo by Saidu BAH / AFP)

Sierra Leone’s government said it was in full control on Sunday evening after reporting an attack at a military armoury in the capital Freetown that sparked armed clashes, which the president called an attempt to destabilise the state.

Authorities in the English-speaking West African country — which has been going through a political crisis following elections in June this year — have declared a national curfew until further notice.

President Julius Maada Bio said late Sunday that calm had been restored after what he described as an attempt to undermine peace and stability in the country.

“Most of the leaders have been arrested. Security operations and investigations are ongoing,” Bio said on national television, adding that the government would “ensure that those responsible are held accountable”.

An AFP journalist said calm was slowly returning to the capital by Sunday evening, but checkpoints heavily guarded by security forces remained in place.

The “government is in firm control of the security situation in Freetown, the attackers are retreating,” information minister Chernor Bah earlier told AFP.

Videos posted on social media appeared to show men in uniform under arrest in the back or beside a military pick-up truck.

Earlier in the day, witnesses told AFP they heard gunshots and explosions in the city’s Wilberforce district, where the armoury and some embassies are located.

Other witnesses reported exchanges of fire near a barracks in Murray Town district, home to the navy, and outside another military site in Freetown.

The information ministry reported attacks on prisons earlier in the day that obliged the security forces to retreat.

“The prisons were thus overrun” with some detainees released and others “abducted”, it said.

Video posted on social networks suggested numerous prisoners had escaped from the central jail.

One man who was in a group filmed on the street by an AFP correspondent said they had escaped from the prison.

The information ministry said security forces had pushed the attackers to the outskirts of Freetown, with drone video taken by AFP showing empty streets in the capital.

The situation remained unclear with the authorities making no comments on the motives or identity of the attackers.

– ‘Like a war’ –
President Bio wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that the government would “continue to protect the peace and security of Sierra Leone against the forces that wish to truncate our much-cherished stability”.

“We remain resolute in our determination to protect democracy in Sierra Leone.”

Regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has contended with a series of coups among its members since 2020, issued a statement underlining “its zero-tolerance for unconstitutional change of government”.

Echoing language used to condemn past coup attempts, ECOWAS spoke of its “utter disgust” over a “plot by certain individuals to acquire arms and disturb the peace and constitutional order”.

The US embassy condemned on social media the bid to break into the armoury and offered continued support for those “working for a peaceful, democratic, healthy and prosperous Sierra Leone”.

The European Union’s local representation expressed concern and called for the respect of constitutional order.

Witness Susan Kargbo told AFP by telephone she was woken “by a loud sound of heavy machine gun (fire) and bombs coming from the Wilberforce barracks around 4:30 am.

“I was shocked and… the gunshots continued until this morning, it was like a war,” she said.

– Attackers ‘repelled’ –
The government said those attempting to break into the armoury had been repelled but asked the public to stay at home while security operations continued.

The local representations of the UK and the European Union echoed the authorities’ advice to stay at home.

The civil aviation authority said Sierra Leone’s airspace remained open but asked airlines to reschedule their flights after the lifting of the curfew.

President Bio, who was first elected in 2018, was re-elected in June with 56.17 percent of the vote — just over the 55 percent needed to avoid a run-off.

International observers condemned inconsistencies and a lack of transparency in the count, as well as acts of violence and intimidation.

The main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party disputed the results of the presidential, legislative and local elections on June 24 and boycotted all levels of government.

The APC and the government signed an agreement in October following talks mediated by the Commonwealth, the African Union and ECOWAS.

The APC agreed to end its boycott and begin participating in government in exchange for an end to detentions and court cases it said were politically motivated.
AFP

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