Trump wants thanks from UCLA 'shoplifters' freed by China

Image copyright Reuters Image caption The players were mobbed by reporters upon their return to LAX airport

US President Donald Trump is awaiting a "thank you" from three college basketball players who were detained for shoplifting in China.

He also said the UCLA teammates who were arrested in Hangzhou ahead of a match in Shanghai "were headed for 10 years in jail".

The first-year students returned to California about 12 hours earlier, and have yet to make a public statement.

The White House chief of staff detailed how Mr Trump intervened in their case.

"Our president said to [Chinese President] Xi, 'Do you know anything about these knuckleheads that got caught allegedly stealing?'" John Kelly told the New York Times in a phone interview following the Mr Trump's return from a trip to Asia.

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"The president was saying, 'It's not too serious. We'd love to see this taken care of in an expeditious way,'" Mr Kelly added.

The discussion between the two world leaders occurred on the sidelines of an economic summit in Vietnam on Sunday.

On Wednesday morning, Mr Trump tweeted: "Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump?

"They were headed for 10 years in jail!"

LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hill were arrested on 8 November, accused of stealing expensive sunglasses from a high-end shopping centre.

They were allowed to leave China after the situation was "resolved to the satisfaction of the Chinese authorities", said Larry Scott, head of the Pacific-12 athletic conference, of which University of California, Los Angeles is a member.

"We want to thank the president, the White House and the US State Department for their efforts towards resolution," Mr Scott added.

"We are all very pleased that these young men have been allowed to return home to their families and university."

The three African-American players were confined to their hotel as their team went on to defeat Georgia Tech 63 to 60.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption LiAngelo Ball was one of the three held in China

The White House chief of staff said China had agreed to reduce the charges, which led to their release.

Mr Kelly also spoke to the three players on the phone.

"To say the least, they were very apologetic," he said, adding that he did not ask if they had in fact committed the crime.

"They were just profuse in their apologies for embarrassing the country and embarrassing the team.

"I bet they learned a lesson in their lives," he said.

On Twitter, several people complained that Mr Trump has previously been critical of black US athletes.

They cited NFL players who have protested the US national anthem by "taking a knee".

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Mr Trump has just wrapped up a 12-day tour of Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

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