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US student who fell into coma while imprisoned in North Korea returned home

The State Department says Dennis Rodman’s visit “had nothing to do with the release”.

Visitors and medical personnel enter a transport plane carrying Otto Warmbier.
Visitors and medical personnel enter a transport plane carrying Otto Warmbier.
Image: John Minchillo

AN AMERICAN STUDENT who fell into a coma while imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp returned to the United States last night after Pyongyang allowed him to be flown home.

A military airplane carrying Otto Warmbier landed in his hometown of Cincinnati shortly before 10.20pm local time last night CBS News reported.

The release of Warmbier, 18 months into a 15-year sentence, came as US President Donald Trump invited South Korea’s new leader Moon Jae-In to Washington for talks on the escalating standoff over the North’s nuclear program.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier in the day that his agency had “secured” the 22-year-old’s release in talks with North Korea and is pushing for three more Americans to be freed. It was not immediately clear if he had made any concessions.

The news surfaced after the flamboyant retired NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman — a former contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show — flew to Pyongyang to resume his quixotic quest to broker detente between his US homeland and Kim Jong-Un’s authoritarian regime.

But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the visit “had nothing to do with the release”.

Warmbier’s parents Fred and Cindy announced his release in a statement to CNN.

“Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016,” they said. “We learned of this only one week ago.”

“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime” in North Korea, they added.

On arriving in Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport, Warmbier was transferred to a waiting ambulance that rushed him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for urgent treatment, Fox News reported.

Political pawn

Warmbier’s parents were told their son had contracted botulism and was given a sleeping pill soon after his trial in March last year and never woke.

The New York Times reported a senior US official as saying the authorities recently received intelligence indicating Warmbier was repeatedly beaten while in custody.

US officials refused to comment on his condition, but former ambassador and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson said he had spoken with the family.

“Otto has been in a coma for over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care in the United States,” said Richardson, who has previously served as a special envoy to North Korea and still works on prisoner issues.

“We received a call from Cindy and Fred Warmbier early today to update us on Otto’s condition. In no uncertain terms, North Korea must explain the causes of his coma.”

Tillerson told US senators at the start of a budget hearing that the State Department had no comment on Warmbier’s condition “out of respect for him and his family.”

© AFP 2017

Read: Thousands of US troops could be headed for Afghanistan after Trump decision

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