'Merchant of Death' arms smuggler detained

March 6, 2008 7:29:42 PM PST
A Russian dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for allegedly supplying weapons to Africa's bloody conflicts over power and diamonds was arrested Thursday in Thailand on suspicion of conspiring to smuggle guns to Colombia's leftist rebels.

Viktor Bout, 41, whose dealings reportedly inspired a 2005 movie about the illicit arms trade, was arrested at U.S. request in his hotel room in Bangkok, said police Lt. Gen. Pongpat Chayapan. Bout had eluded arrest for years and was finally seized after a four-month sting organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In New York, federal authorities unsealed a criminal complaint charging that Bout conspired to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons, including 100 surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rockets, that he thought were going to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The leftist group, which has been fighting Colombia's government for more than four decades, is listed by the U.S. as a terror group. Bout and an associate, Andrew Smulian, were charged with "conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization."

Thai police Col. Petcharat Sengchai said Smulian was still being sought.

Bout, who has never before been prosecuted for arms selling despite investigations in several countries, has always denied being involved in illicit deals. The paunchy businessman was shown briefly by Thai police to reporters; he stared blankly and made no comment.

The criminal complaint in New York said confidential sources directed by the DEA posed as FARC members while negotiating from November to February to buy arms from Bout.

Noting that lengthy investigation, a law enforcement official in Washington said there was no link between Bout's arrest and the weekend seizure by Colombian troops of a top FARC leader's laptop computer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

In New York, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia would not say how much the weapons involved in the alleged deal were worth but said the cost of transporting them alone was set at $5 million. He said the weapons were to be parachuted to FARC fighters in Colombian territory.

The arrest "marks the end of the reign of one of the world's most wanted arms traffickers," Garcia said.

Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, allegedly built his contacts in the post-Soviet arms industry into a business dealing arms to combatants in conflicts around the world. He is generally believed to have been a model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War."

Bout's best-documented activities have been in Central and West Africa, where he has been accused of funneling weapons into various civil wars since the early 1990s.

In 2000, Peter Hain, then Britain's Cabinet minister for African affairs, called Bout "the chief sanctions-buster" flouting U.N. arms embargoes on the warring parties in Angola and Sierra Leone, dubbing the Russian "a merchant of death."

Bout also reportedly supplied arms to warring parties in Afghanistan before the 2001 fall of the Taliban's Islamic regime.

One of his companies also served as a subcontractor involved in transporting U.S. military personnel and private U.S. contractors in Iraq, according to a book about Bout by journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun published last year.

The book, "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible," also says a plane in Bout's fleet made several airdrops of weapons to FARC guerrillas between December 1998 and April 1999. It says the flights dropped about 10,000 weapons to the rebels, "enabling them to greatly enhance their military capabilities."

In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department said: "Bout has the capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tons to virtually any point in the world. The arms he has sold or brokered has helped fuel conflicts and support U.N. sanctioned regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan."

U.N. reports say Bout set up a network of more than 50 aircraft around the world, owned by shadowy companies with names such as Bukavu Aviation Transport, Business Air Services and Great Lakes Business.

Bout's list of alleged customers in Africa includes former dictator Charles Taylor of Liberia, the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as Congo, and both sides of the civil war in Angola.

A U.N. travel ban imposed on Bout said he supported the effort of Taylor's regime in Liberia to destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds. West Africa's diamonds have become known as "blood diamonds" for the warring they have inspired.

In October 2006, President Bush issued an executive order freezing the assets of Bout and several associates and warlords in Congo and barring Americans from doing business with them. They were accused of violating international laws involving targeting of children or violating a ban on sales of military equipment to Congo.

The U.S. Treasury's 2005 sanctions announcement said air transport companies controlled by Bout "played a key role in supplying arms to Charles Taylor's regime in Liberia and the Sierra Leone rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front," both of which were notorious for inflicting atrocities on civilians.

In 2002, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant for Bout through Interpol, the international police agency, on charges of money-laundering and criminal conspiracy.

Bout is believed to have served in an air transport unit of the Russian military until about 1991. He built his business on the huge drawdown of weapons and aircraft in the former Soviet bloc of eastern Europe as the Cold War waned.

A 2005 report by Amnesty International, a London-based human rights group, alleged Bout was "the most prominent foreign businessman" involved in trafficking arms to U.N.-embargoed countries. It implicated Bout in transferring "very large quantities of arms" from Ukraine that were delivered to Uganda via Tanzania aboard a Greek-registered cargo ship.

Bout's businesses included many legitimate operations as well, according to a report by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

"Bout's companies shipped vegetables and crayfish from South Africa to Europe, transported United Nations peacekeepers from Pakistan to East Timor, and reportedly assisted the logistics of Operation Restore Hope, the U.S.-led military famine relief effort in Somalia in 1993," said the center's 2002 report.

Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategies and Technologies, described Bout as a rich "adventurist, one of these guys who emerged at the start of the 1990s and started pumping weapons from the former Soviet Union into Africa."


Load Comments