Moscow says 60 Russian 'hostages' held in U.S. as prisoner swap talk swirls

Dec 20 (Reuters) - Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said that more than 60 Russian "hostages" were serving prison sentences in the United States, the result of what he called an illegal global hunt for Russians by U.S. intelligence services.

Vershinin's remarks, made in an interview to Russia's state-owned news agency RIA published on Tuesday, come as Washington is seeking a new prisoner swap with Moscow amid speculation about which captives Russia may want freed in such a deal.

Vershinin did not touch on the possible scope of such an exchange, but said:

"The total number of Russian citizens (in U.S. jails), who have been in effect taken hostage, exceeds 60."

He provided no evidence that the Russians' sentences were politically motivated or otherwise unfair, but cited general anti-Russian feeling in the United States and said that was his view.

Earlier this month, the United States released convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been serving a 25-year sentence, in a prisoner swap for Brittney Griner, an American basketball star jailed in Russia for drug offences.

U.S. media reported that Russia had refused to include Paul Whelan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran convicted of espionage in 2020, in the same exchange.

Whelan denies wrongdoing and the United States has said it is actively engaged in efforts to try to free him.

According to U.S. media reports, Russia had demanded the release of Vadim Krasikov, who was convicted of the 2019 murder of a Chechen dissident in Berlin, in exchange for Whelan.

German authorities reportedly refused to participate in such a swap.

Reporting by Reuters Editing by Andrew Osborn

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