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7 Mar, 2008 01:15

`Merchant of Death` arrested in Thailand

U.S. officials are working to extradite a suspected Russian illegal arms dealer arrested in Thailand. Viktor Bout is accused of trying to sell weapons to Colombian rebels. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

The arrest was the result of a long undercover operation conducted by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Bout has been at the top of their wanted list for almost a decade.

U.S. investigators say the 41-year-old was arrested for conspiring to sell weapons to rebels of the revolutionary armed forces of Columbia.

The men brokering deals with Bout were actually confidential sources working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

“In co-ordination with this office and the DEA, the Royal Thai Police arrested Bout in Bangkok. He was apprehended in the final stages of arranging the sale of millions of dollars of high power weapons to people he believed to represent a known terrorist organisation, the FARC,” commented Michael Garcia, U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York.

Bout and his associate Andrew Smulian allegedly offered the undercover agents one hundred shoulder-to-air missiles, as well as armour piercing rocket launchers.

The weapons would be air-dropped into Columbian territory using combat parachutes for the cost of $US 5 million.

Several meetings on the deal were held in Romania, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

The FARC has been fighting Colombia’s government for more than four decades and funds itself largely through the cocaine trade and kidnapping for ransom.

“They demonstrated their willingness to support a terrorist organisation and their capacity to do so. They knew the weapons they agreed to sell were destined for a terrorist organisation,” said Michael Garcia.

Dubbed “The Merchant of Death”, Viktor Bout has been accused of breaking UN embargoes since the early 1990s by selling arms to conflict-torn regions in Africa and around the world.

According to the United Nations and the U.S. Treasury Department, he sold arms or brokered deals that have helped fuel wars in Afghanistan, Angola, Rwanda, and Sudan.

Bout is believed to have been the inspiration for Nicholas Cage's arms smuggling anti-hero in the 2005 film ‘Lord of War’.

The former Soviet air force officer denied the allegations against him during a 2006 appearance on Russia Today's Spotlight.

“I could call it a witch hunt, they’re trying to accuse me since 1998 but with all the power of the American administration, the CIA and the FBI, and all means like satellites and so on, they are not able to come with any evidence,” Bout said.

In 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department seized Bout’s cargo planes and froze other assets.

U.S. officials are working to extradite him to the States. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.

“Viktor Bout is not wanted on any charges except the one filed yesterday. There are no other charges pending against him by any government or any other body in the world. That is a fact, that these charges in Thailand are the only ones against him. There were some charges pressed by the Belgian government in 2002 and these were withdrawn because they were unsupported or they could not substantiate them. There is a time limit on this, which is why the case against him was drawn out. He became wanted by the US yesterday,” stated Chichakly.