MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia formally dropped criminal charges against Greenpeace activists arrested in a protest over Arctic oil drilling on Wednesday, under a Kremlin amnesty extended to all 30 who had been facing up to seven years jail if convicted.
The environmental group said 29 of the 30, who are still in Russia after being freed on bail, have now been amnestied and will be free to leave for their home countries as soon as they secure exit visas. One more activist's case will be reviewed on Thursday, it said.
Russia's treatment of the activists - who spent two months in detention and had faced hooliganism charges punishable by seven years in jail - had drawn heavy criticism from Western nations and celebrities.
Their amnesty will remove an irritant in relations in what Kremlin critics say is a move timed to improve Russia's image ahead of the Sochi Olympics.
"This is the day we've been waiting for since our ship was boarded by armed commandos almost three months ago," Peter Willcox, who captained the Greenpeace vessel used in the protest, the Arctic Sunrise, said in a statement.
"I'm pleased and relieved the charges have been dropped, but we should not have been charged at all."
President Vladimir Putin has said Russia's response to a Greenpeace protest should serve as a lesson and Moscow would take tougher steps to guard against interference in its development of the region.
Russia says activists endangered lives and property in the protest at the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya platform in the Pechora Sea, a key element of Russia's plans to develop the Arctic.
Greenpeace said the boarding of its icebreaker by Russian authorities was illegal and says its activists conducted a peaceful protest.
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Andrew Roche and Hugh Lawson)