Biden to meet with relatives of two Americans jailed in Russia - White House

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FILE PHOTO - U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One in New Castle, Delaware

By Steve Holland and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden plans to meet with family members of two Americans jailed in Russia: basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, the White House said on Thursday.

Biden will host separate meetings on Friday with Griner's wife and Whelan's sister, more than a month after his administration announced it had proposed a deal for their return to Moscow.

"The Russians should accept our offer today," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. "We would love to be saying today that we have news about Brittney and Paul coming home today. Unfortunately, that is not where the negotiations are at this time."

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on drug charges on Aug. 4, a verdict that Biden called "unacceptable."

Whelan, who holds American, British, Canadian and Irish passports, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail after being convicted of spying. He denied the charge.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late July that Washington had made a "substantial offer" to Moscow to secure the return of the two Americans, and sources have confirmed Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout could be released in an exchange.

Russia's foreign ministry said last month it was engaged in "quiet diplomacy" about a potential prisoner swap, but there have been few public developments on the issue over the past weeks.

Negotiations are taking place amid ruptured relations between Washington and Moscow after Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a U.S.-led effort to punish Russia with sanctions and isolate it diplomatically.

"I wouldn't characterize this process as stalled. It certainly hasn't moved with the speed we would like," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, adding that Biden would tell the families his administration attaches the "utmost priority" to securing their family members' release.

"We will take every step that we feel would help move the process forward," Price said when asked whether Blinken would meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when his Russian counterpart visits New York for United Nations meetings this month.

The State Department on Wednesday warned against private efforts to try to secure Griner and Whelan's release after former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson traveled to Moscow, saying such efforts could complicate official talks for their release.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis)