Friday, March 07, 2008
BANGKOK, Thailand —The U.S. is seeking the extradition of a suspected Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death," but for now he will remain in Thailand, where authorities are investigating if he used the country as a base to negotiate a weapons deal with terrorists, officials said Friday.
Viktor Bout, a 41-year-old whose dealings reportedly inspired a 2005 movie about the illicit arms trade, is accused of running weapons to al-Qaida, the Taliban and parties involved in bloody conflicts across Africa. He was arrested at a Bangkok hotel after a four-month sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Thai and U.S. authorities said.
"He is called the 'Merchant of Death' and 'Man of War' for a reason," Thomas Pasquarello, regional director of the DEA, said in Bangkok.
American authorities intend to extradite Bout but the timing still has to be "worked out" between the two nations, Pasquarello said.
Thailand is investigating whether Bout was involved in "procuring weapons for terrorists and conspiring with terrorists," Lt. Gen. Adisorn Nontree said.
Authorities in New York unsealed a criminal complaint Thursday charging that Bout conspired to sell millions of dollars in weapons _ including 100 surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rockets _ to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The U.S. considers the leftist rebels, who have been fighting Colombia's government for more than 40 years, a terror group. Bout and associate Andrew Smulian were charged with "conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization."
The DEA was involved because, according to the criminal complaint, the FARC uses weapons to protect its cocaine trafficking business, which helps to finance its operations.
Thai police Col. Petcharat Sengchai said Smulian was still being sought.
Handcuffed and expressionless, Bout was paraded before journalists at the news conference but refused to answer questions.
Regarded as one of the world's most wanted arms traffickers, Bout's alleged list of customers is said to include African dictators and warlords, including Charles Taylor of Liberia, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
He is believed to have used a fleet of planes and contacts from his days in the Soviet Air Force to buy weapons in formerly communist Eastern Europe and deliver them to rebel groups around the world.
He is generally believed to have been a model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War."
The DEA complaint filed in New York federal court reads like a spy thriller, telling how agents infiltrated Bout's organization and posed as FARC rebels. They used at least three informants to reach the reclusive and secretive Bout through Smulian, identified as a business associate.
Meetings between the informants and Smulian took place over four months on the Caribbean island of Curacao and in Copenhagen and Romania to discuss the purchase of armaments and surface-to-air missiles worth millions of dollars, the complaint said, and included air dropping the weapons into FARC territory.
Smulian at one point even suggested Bout could procure helicopter gunships for the rebels.
In New York, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia would not say how much the weapons involved in the alleged deal were worth but said the cost of transporting them alone was set at $5 million. He said the weapons were to be parachuted to FARC fighters in Colombian territory.
U.S. authorities tipped off Thai authorities Monday that Bout was expected to arrive to complete the FARC arms deal and a Thai court issued an arrest warrant the next day, Adisorn said.
Bout arrived from Moscow on Thursday morning and checked into a luxury hotel in downtown Bangkok. Within hours, nearly two dozen Thai police and U.S. law enforcement agents poured into the hotel and apprehended him, said police Col. Petcharat Sengchai. He did not resist arrest.
In 2000, Peter Hain, then Britain's Cabinet minister for African affairs, called Bout "the chief sanctions-buster" flouting U.N. arms embargoes on the warring parties in Angola, Sierra Leone, Congo and Rawanda and said he supplied al-Qaida and the Taliban with arms. He dubbed Bout "a merchant of death."
A 2007 book by journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, called "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible," claims that planes in Bout's fleet made several airdrops of weapons to FARC guerrillas between December 1998 and April 1999.
The book says the flights dropped about 10,000 weapons to the rebels, "enabling them to greatly enhance their military capabilities."
Bout has been investigated by police in several countries, but has never been prosecuted for arms dealing. He has denied being involved in illicit deals: "Never in my life have I done anything that would cause me to hide from anyone," he told a Russian radio interviewer in 2002.
In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement saying Bout has the capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons "by the ton" to virtually any point in the world.
U.N. reports say Bout set up a network of more than 50 aircraft around the world, owned by shadowy companies with names such as Bukavu Aviation Transport, Business Air Services and Great Lakes Business Co.
A U.N. travel ban imposed on Bout that was still current as of last November said he supported former Liberian President Charles Taylor's regime in efforts to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds, which became known as "blood diamonds" for the warring they inspired.
In October 2006, President Bush issued an executive order freezing the assets of Bout and several associates and warlords in Congo and barring Americans from doing business with them.
They were accused of violating international laws involving targeting of children or violating a ban on sales of military equipment to Congo, and Bout had been under similar sanctions since 2004.
Associated Press reporters Ambika Ahuja and Grant Peck in Bangkok and Peter Leonard in Moscow contributed to this report.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.