- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 16, 2010

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand extradited accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout to the U.S. on Tuesday 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 Cabinet approved Mr. Bout’s extradition Tuesday after a long legal battle, and police said the 43-year-old was put aboard a plane that departed Bangkok at about 1:30 p.m. (1:30 a.m. EST) in the custody of eight U.S. officials.

In New York, a law-enforcement official said Mr. Bout was expected to arrive there around 9 p.m. EST Tuesday. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns, declined to name the airport.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said his Cabinet had approved extradition after acknowledging an earlier appeals court decision that Bout could be legally extradited.

Mr. 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 as part of a sting operation led by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

Mr. Bout has allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi 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.”

The head of a lucrative air transport empire, Bout had long evaded U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at blocking his financial activities and restricting his travel. He claims he ran a legitimate business and never sold weapons, and fought hard to avoid extradition.

Thai police commandoes in full combat gear, wearing balaclavas to hide their identities, accompanied Mr. Bout from the prison where he was held to the tarmac at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, where at least half-a-dozen Westerners, some wearing jackets identifying them as members of the DEA, helped shepherd Mr. Bout onto a chartered jet. Mr. Bout wore a bulletproof vest and ballistic helmet over a blue track suit as he boarded the plane.

Mr. Bout’s wife Alla had rushed to the prison with his lawyer, but did not get to see him before his departure.

Russia on Tuesday 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.

The statement charged that Mr. Bout’s extradition was the result of “unprecedented political pressure from the USA on the government and judicial authorities of Thailand.”

“There is no way to characterize this other than as interference in administering justice, which puts in doubt the independence of the Thai justice system,” the statement said, adding that the Foreign Ministry will “take all necessary measures” to protect Bout’s legal rights in accordance with international humanitarian law.

Asked if he was worried that the 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 U.S. Embassy said it had no immediate comment.

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