Russia and US go to war over 'Merchant of Death'

Fury in Moscow after Washington wins battle to put suspected arms dealer Viktor Bout on trial. Andrew Buncombe reports

An alleged arms dealer nicknamed "The Merchant of Death", who has been pursued by global law enforcement organisations for years, is to be extradited to the US to stand trial.

The news comes amid allegations that the authorities in Thailand succumbed to persistent pressure from Washington.

A court in Bangkok ruled that the Viktor Bout, a Russian who prosecutors say sold guns to dictators and militants in war zones across Africa, South America and the Middle East, should be sent to the US to face charges that he tried to sell arms to outlawed Colombian rebels.

Wearing leg irons and an orange prison jumpsuit, the 43-year-old Russian, whose exploits have inspired Hollywood movies, vowed to prove his innocence.

"We will face the trial in the US and win it," he told reporters in Russian. Hugging his wife and fighting back tears, he was then led from the courtroom. His wife Alla declared: "This is the most unfair decision possible."

Yet the courtroom drama over the extradition of a man suspected of selling arms to everyone from Liberia's Charles Taylor to Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, has been overshadowed by a heated row between the US and Russia, both of which had been lobbying the Thai authorities.

While the US wanted the former Russian military translator to be sent to America for trial, Moscow urged that he be released from the maximum security prison he has been held in for two years and allowed to return to Russia.

Mr Bout, said to be the inspiration behind the 2005 film Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage, has been held in Thailand since he was arrested two years ago in a joint US-Thai sting operation in which agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). Held on an Interpol warrant, the US had argued that he be extradited to face terrorism charges.

Underlining the US's determination that he be sent for trial, the State Department this week summoned the Thai ambassador in Washington to "emphasise how important this judgment is". The US ambassador in Thailand made similar requests to the Thai foreign ministry. Thailand is a regional ally of the US and receives millions of dollars in aid from Washington. Indeed, the court had asked for a report on the political implications of releasing the prisoner.

Against such a backdrop, Russia reacted with anger, describing the Thai court judgment as "unlawful and political". Without referring specifically to the US, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said the decision to overturn a lower court's previous decision that had rejected extradition "was made under very strong pressure". He added: "This is lamentable. I assure you that we will continue to do all that is necessary to ensure his return to his homeland."

Though he has always denied the claim, Mr Bout is widely considered one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, selling to both governments and rebels – and sometimes supplying arms to both participants in a conflict at the same time. The head of a lucrative air transport empire, he has long evaded efforts by the US and UN to freeze his assets and stop him travelling. He has always insisted he runs a legitimate business. The full circumstances of Bout's arrest in 2008 in Thailand – he was seized in a luxury Bangkok hotel – remain unclear. He was detained by US agents posing as arms buyers for Farc, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Washington, and indicted on four charges related to terrorism.

He had allegedly offered to sell the left-wing Colombian organisation more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters and aeroplanes fitted with grenade launchers and missiles.

But other witnesses told the court that Mr Bout had been in Thailand in connection with a project involving a Russian submarine.

The New York Times reported that Thai intelligence officials said he was part of a deal to provide Thailand with a small but sophisticated nuclear submarine, to be named in honour of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country's monarch. When this hearing began, Mr Bout's lawyer submitted a list of witnesses that included advisers to Thailand's royal family and also presented copies of speeches in which members of the royal family called for closer military cooperation with Russia. Any revelations that were in anyway embarrassing for the country's royal family would be hugely awkward for the Thai government.

Experts have said that the decision by the court in Bangkok represents a considerable victory for the US and an embarrassment for Moscow. Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian military analyst, told the Associated Press that Mr Bout was a "prize catch" who could provide military intelligence, not only on Russia, but other former Soviet states where he operated.

Yet Lak Nittiwattanawichan, Mr Bout's lawyer, said he would keep fighting. "I am going to submit a request to the ministry of foreign affairs and the cabinet," he said. "I will also submit a request to the King and Queen."

The alleged clients

According to the indictment issued by the United States, Viktor Bout assembled a fleet of cargo aircraft to transport weapons to Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Liberia

US prosecutors say the former Liberia dictator Charles Taylor was one of his clients. A United Nations report said that Bout supported Taylor's regime to "destabilise Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds". Taylor is now on trial for war crimes. As a result of his alleged weapons trafficking in Liberia, the US ordered Bout's assets to be frozen under its jurisdiction, and banned any US citizen from having financial dealings with him.

Angola

Bout has been accused of supplying both sides in Angola's long and brutal civil war that ended only in 2002. A report to the UN said that Bout controlled an organisation that broke international embargoes on Angola. Such an operation required a network that was "well-funded, well-connected and well-versed in brokering and logistics, with the ability to move illicit cargo around the world without raising the suspicions of the law".

Afghanistan

Bout told Channel 4 News he flew arms to Afghanistan in the 1990s. He claimed that the weapons were for commanders fighting the Taliban.

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