Russian arms dealer nicknamed the 'Merchant of Death' arrested in Thailand

Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer known as the "merchant of death" for his colourful and unscrupulous dealings in every troubled hot spot from Africa to the Middle East and Afghanistan, was arrested yesterday at a five-star hotel in Thailand following a tip-off that originated deep in the jungles of South America.

It was the end of an extraordinarily colourful – and charmed – existence for the 41-year-old former Soviet army officer, who grew both rich and notorious following the collapse of the USSR. For 15 years, he stayed one step ahead of the law, transferring his operations from Russia to Belgium to the United Arab Emirates, back to Russia again and ultimately to south-east Asia.

He has been wanted for years in several countries, but is most likely to face trial in the United States where he is suspected of supplying weapons to both the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, a charge he has taken considerable trouble to deny.

His downfall, like much of his adventure-filled life, seemed taken straight out of a spy thriller. Colombian army troops who staged a cross-border incursion into Ecuador over the weekend to chase down rebels from Farc recovered a laptop computer belonging to a senior guerrilla commander who was killed. It apparently detailed Mr Bout's dealings with the rebel group – believed by arms experts to involve shipments of AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and possibly surface-to-air missiles.

Brian Johnson-Thomas, a British-based arms researcher, told The New York Times he believed Mr Bout had been supplying Farc for as long as 18 months, sending in supplies by a circuitous route starting in Paraguay and then going through Argentina and Uruguay. The weapons came from Kazakhstan and other central Asian countries, and were flown in on Mr Bout's fleet of private planes, most of them registered in Equatorial Guinea.

In exchange for the weapons, Mr Bout's planes carried consignments of illegal drugs back out of South America, Mr Johnson-Thomas alleged.

It was not immediately clear if the laptop also pinpointed Mr Bout's whereabouts, but the US Drug Enforcement Administration somehow got wind that he was in Thailand and alerted the Thai authorities.

They, in turn, traced him to the Silom Sofitel Hotel in Bangkok and picked him up at around noon yesterday. He is believed to have been in Thailand for the past two months, changing hotels frequently and registering under a variety of aliases.

Colonel Petcharat Sengchai of the Thai police's Crime Suppression Division told reporters his unit was holding Mr Bout in custody on charges relating to "the procurement of weapons and explosives for Colombian rebels". According to media reports, Mr Bout was arrested during a meeting with someone from Russia or elsewhere in eastern Europe. He has already been interrogated by US counter-terrorism officials and is unlikely to stay in Thailand for long.

Mr Bout's origins are shrouded in some mystery, with various stories suggesting he is the son of a very senior former KGB officer. He was born in Tajikistan but is believed to be of Ukrainian origin. He attended Moscow's Military Institute of Foreign Languages – picking up as many as six languages – before joining the air force and working as a translator in Angola. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he used the Antonov planes at the base where he had been stationed to conduct his first deals. Quickly he established his own private network, shipping Soviet-era tanks, helicopters and weapons to war zones including Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan. He became close to Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president held responsible for destabilising Sierra Leone in an attempt to gain access to its diamonds. Belgium issued a warrant for his arrest in 2002, and the UN published a damning report the following year.

Peter Hain, the former cabinet minister, who first dubbed Mr Bout the "merchant of death", once described him as being "at the centre of a spider's web of shady arms dealers, diamond brokers and other operatives, sustaining the wars [in Africa]". Yesterday Mr Hain expressed delight at his arrest.

Mr Bout was the inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War. A year later, President Bush issued an executive order barring Americans from any dealings with him.

Like a James Bond villain, Mr Bout is reported to have luxury homes around the world and a weakness for luxury cars. He surfaced briefly in 2002 to give a radio interview in Moscow, in which he complained that his image had been distorted in the manner of a "Hollywood thriller". He also denied the most incendiary of the charges against him. "I have never supplied or done anything and I have never been in contact with either Taliban representatives or al-Qa'ida representatives," he said.

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