International arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death," was extradited Tuesday by Thailand to the United States to stand trial on an indictment unsealed in New York accusing him of conspiracy to finance a fleet of aircraft to arm bloody conflicts and support rogue regimes worldwide.
Handcuffed and wearing protective armor and a helmet, the former KGB agent was escorted to a chartered American aircraft at the Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok by 50 Thai police officers, including snipers, where he was handed over to six U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents for the trip to the United States.
The extradition angered Russian officials, who condemned the Thai government.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had lashed out at the Bangkok court, describing its actions as "nonlegal" and "politically motivated." Without mentioning the U.S., he said the decision "was made under strong pressure from outside, and this is sad."
Mr. Bout had claimed in court documents that his March 2008 arrest by Royal Thai Police in Bangkok was illegal because a DEA agent had assisted in the apprehension. The Thai court rejected the claim.
The 43-year-old arms dealer and an associate, Richard A. Chichakli, were accused of money laundering, wire fraud and conspiracy, along with charges of conspiring to purchase two aircraft from U.S. companies in violation of economic sanctions.
Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican, who spearheaded congressional efforts to ensure Mr. Bout's extradition, said that at times it felt as if the arms dealer "would slip away, so this is a huge victory."
"It may not have been pretty, but it counts as a big win," he said.
"The man who armed terrorists and warlords across the globe is out of the game," said Mr. Royce, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs terrorism, nonproliferation and trade subcommittee. "Bout now gets to have a fair trial. That is more than the victims of his trade got."
Mr. Bout was arrested on March 6, 2008, on an Interpol "red notice," a warrant issued for those sought for prosecution by national jurisdictions. Red notices are circulated worldwide with a view to extradition.
His arrest culminated a DEA sting operation involving two undercover informants who posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a designated terrorist organization. FARC's violent acts against U.S. targets have involved killings, kidnapping and bombings in Colombia of places frequented by Americans.
Mr. Bout, described by U.S. intelligence officials as the world's most powerful player in illegal arms trafficking, was taken into custody by Thai police in his Bangkok hotel room - nabbed after talking with the undercover informants.
Authorities said Mr. Bout was seeking to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, and was apprehended in the final stages of making arrangements for the sale and shipment of the arms.
According to a criminal complaint, another Bout associate, Andrew Smulian, told the informants during a series of recorded meetings in Romania that Mr. Bout had 100 surface-to-air missiles available and could provide helicopters and armor-piercing rocket launchers. The complaint said Mr. Smulian spoke with Mr. Bout over a cell phone provided to him by the informants.
Mr. Bout is suspected of having shipped weapons and explosives to terrorist and rebel organizations worldwide, including the Taliban, and is thought to have supplied arms to Iraqi insurgents in their fight against the U.S. military through front companies and cargo airlifts.
In May 2006, when 200,000 AK-47 assault rifles turned up missing in transit from Bosnia to Iraq, one of Mr. Bout's airlines was the carrier. The Treasury Department seized his cargo planes and froze other assets in 2006.
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