Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer who was released as a result of a US prisoner swap, arrived in Russia on Thursday, state television said.
“Don’t worry, everything is OK, I love you very much,” he told his mother Raisa in comments broadcast by state television. He spoke to his family when his plane made a refuelling stop in Russia.
In footage broadcast on state television, Bout was shown boarding a plane during the swap with the United States, a smile on his face.
Aboard the plane, a nurse took his temperature and checked his blood pressure.
Dubbed the “Merchant of Death”, Bout was released Thursday in a prisoner swap in Abu Dhabi involving American basketball star Brittney Griner.
He was met by his family when he arrived in Moscow, in footage shown by state news channel Rossiya 24.
“They simply woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to pack my things. There was no clear information beforehand,” he said.
“I got here, that’s the most important thing.”
The 55-year-old Bout, who was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, was arrested in a US sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the United States and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison.
– ‘So grateful’ –
Earlier on Thursday, Bout’s mother thanked President Vladimir Putin for her son’s release.
The release happened “thanks to our president”, Raisa said in televised remarks.
“I am so grateful. A low maternal bow to the Russian foreign ministry with Lavrov Sergei Viktorovich at its helm,” she said.
She said she was also grateful to “kind people” in the United States, thanking them for having “faith”.
“You cannot say that all of them are evil,” she added.
Bout’s wife Alla said his release was a “true New Year’s gift”.
She also said Bout planned to open an exhibition of his paintings in Russia’s second city, Saint Petersburg, in April.
The exchange comes as tensions soar between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military assault in Ukraine.
Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova praised the arms dealer as a “wonderful man who has become a victim of American insinuations”.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the country’s diplomats were receiving messages of support from “people in Russia and abroad”.
“Incredible!” she said on messaging app Telegram. “They are thanking the country.”
© Agence France-Presse