US trial for 'Merchant of Death' after extradition

Thailand extradited accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout to the US yesterday to face terrorism charges, siding with Washington in a tug-of-war with Moscow over whether to send him to stand trial or let him go home.

The Thai Cabinet approved Bout's extradition after a long legal battle. The 43-year-old was put on a plane at Bangkok at about 1:30pm (0630 GMT) in the custody of eight US officials.

The Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said his Cabinet approved extradition after an appeals court decided Bout could be legally extradited.

Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who is reputed to have been one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, was arrested at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008. He has allegedly supplied weapons that fuelled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and both sides in Angola's civil war.

He has been referred to as "the Merchant of Death", and was an inspiration for the arms dealer played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War.

Thai police commandoes in full combat gear accompanied Bout from prison to the tarmac at Bangkok's Don Muang airport. Bout wore a bulletproof vest and ballistic helmet over a blue track suit as he boarded the plane. His wife rushed to the prison but did not get to see him before his departure.

On Tuesday Russia described the extradition as "unlawful". "From a legal point of view what has happened cannot have any rational explanation or justification," said a statement issued in Moscow by the Russian Foreign Ministry. "There is no way to characterise this other than as interference in administering justice, which puts in doubt the independence of the Thai justice system."

Asked if he was worried that Thai relations with Russia would be affected, Mr Abhisit said: "We have the duty to perform whatever is deemed necessary... We can't satisfy everyone, we have to admit that." The US embassy made no comment.

Both Moscow and Washington were reported to have exerted heavy pressure on Abhisit's government. Russia says Bout is an innocent businessman and wants him in Moscow.