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Despite an extradition request from the United States, suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout will remain in Thailand while authorities investigate whether he used the country as a base for negotiating weapons deals with terrorists, officials said on Friday.
Bout, 41, accused of running weapons to al-Qaida, the Taliban and bloody conflicts across Africa, was arrested at a Bangkok hotel on Thursday following a four-month sting operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Thai and US authorities said.
American authorities intend to extradite Bout, but the timing still has “to be worked out between the two nations,” Thomas Pasquarello, regional director of the DEA, told reporters in Bangkok.
Federal authorities in New York unsealed a criminal complaint Thursday charging that Bout conspired to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons, including 100 surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rockets, that he thought were going to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The leftist group, which has been fighting Colombia’s government for more than four decades, is listed by the US as a terror group. Bout and an associate, Andrew Smulian, were charged with “conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation.”
Thai police Col Petcharat Sengchai said a second suspect identified as Andrew Smulian was also being sought.
Bout is also under investigation in Thailand for “procuring weapons for terrorists and conspiring with terrorists,” charges that carry a 10-year prison sentence, police Lt Gen Aidsorn Nontree told a news conference. Police believe he was planning to negotiate arms deals in Thailand.
Under Thai law, he could be detained up to 84 days pending trial. Police will be in court on Saturday to continue Bout’s detention.
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 list of alleged customers includes a long list of African dictators and warlords including Charles Taylor of Liberia, the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
Bout 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.
The DEA complaint filed in New York federal court reads like a spy thriller, telling how agents infiltrated Bout’s organisation 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, US 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 (Dh18.35 million). He said the weapons were to be parachuted to FARC fighters in Colombian territory.
The arrest “marks the end of the reign of one of the world’s most wanted arms traffickers,” Garcia said.
US authorities tipped off Thai authorities Monday that Bout was expected to arrive in Thailand to complete the FARC arms deal, and a Thai court issued an arrest warrant the next day, Adisorn said.
He flew into Bangkok on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow on Thursday morning and checked into a luxury hotel in downtown Bangkok. Within hours, nearly two dozen Thai police and US law enforcement agents poured into the hotel and apprehended Bout, who was in one of the hotel’s restaurants, said police Col Petcharat Sengchai. He did not resist arrest.
Four other Russian nationals and a British national who were with Bout were arrested and later released, Petcharat said.
In 2000, Peter Hain, then Britain’s Cabinet minister for African affairs, called Bout “the chief sanctions-buster” flouting UN 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.”
One of Bout’s companies also served as a subcontractor involved in transporting US military personnel and private US contractors in Iraq, according to a 2007 book about Bout by journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun.
The book, “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible,” also says a plane in Bout’s fleet made several airdrops of weapons to FARC guerrillas between December 1998 and April 1999. It 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 always denied being involved in illicit deals.
“Never in my life have I done anything that would cause me to hide from anyone,” Bout told a Russian radio interviewer in 2002.
In 2005, the US Treasury Department said “Bout has the capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tons to virtually any point in the world. The arms he has sold or brokered has helped fuel conflicts and support UN-sanctioned regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.”
UN reports say he 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 UN 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 destabilise Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds, which became known as “blood diamonds” for the warring they inspired.
In October 2006, US President George W 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. Bout had been under similar sanctions since 2004.
A US Treasury sanctions announcement in 2005 said air transport companies controlled by Bout “played a key role in supplying arms to Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia and the Sierra Leone rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front,” both of which were accused of conducting atrocities against civilians.
“In exchange for these supplies, Bout received payment from Liberia’s international ship registry as well as diamonds and other valuable commodities acquired illegally by Taylor’s associates and the RUF,” it said.
In 2002, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant through Interpol, the international police agency, on charges of money-laundering and criminal conspiracy.
Bout is believed to have served in an air transport outfit of the Russian military until about 1991. He built his business on the huge drawdown of weapons and aircraft in the communist Eastern bloc as the Cold War was coming to a close. (AP)
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