US college student released by North Korea home, but in coma

In this file photo, American student Otto Warmbier  is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea.
In this file photo, American student Otto Warmbier is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Cincinnati - An American college student who was released from a North Korean prison is finally home but in a coma and undergoing treatment at an Ohio hospital where he was taken shortly after arriving on US soil.

An aeroplane carrying Otto Warmbier, from Ohio, landed in Cincinnati late on Tuesday night. The 22-year-old was then taken by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Warmbier was serving a 15-year prison term with hard labour in North Korea for alleged anti-state acts.

In Warmbier's hometown of Wyoming, just outside of Cincinnati, residents helped tie blue and white ribbons, Wyoming High School's colours, to trees and said news of his release had sent waves of shock and joy through the community.

"Everybody feels a sense of relief that he is coming back to the United States," resident Amy Mayer said before he arrived.

"I think we're very excited yet very prayerful about what is happening because we've heard he is in a coma. So I think that people are trying to be supportive of the family and let the community-family know that we are very with them."

Negotiations

A hospital spokesperson said Warmbier's family was expected to hold a news conference on Thursday morning at Wyoming High School.

Securing Warmbier's release "was a big priority" for US President Donald Trump, who worked "very hard and very closely" with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

While North Korea's move to free Warmbier could potentially provide an opening for talks on security issues, the prospects still appear bleak.

International negotiations on the dispute over North Korea's nuclear programme have been in limbo for years as the US cranks up economic sanctions and North Korea refuses to give up weapons it considers a guarantee against invasion.

The detention of Americans, often sentenced to draconian prison sentences for seemingly small offenses in the totalitarian nation, has compounded tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. Three Americans remain in custody.

Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea's Supreme Court in March 2016.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labour for subversion after he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.

Warmbier's parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said they were told he has been in a coma since his trial, when he was last seen in public, and they had learned of this only one week ago.

"We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalised and terrorised by the pariah regime" in North Korea, Warmbier's parents said. "We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him."

A White House official said Trump had instructed Tillerson to take all appropriate measures to secure the release of Americans held in North Korea. The official referred to them as "hostages".

The US government accuses North Korea of using such detainees as political pawns. North Korea accuses Washington and South Korea of sending spies to overthrow its government.

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