Arms Dealer Accused of Fueling Global Conflicts Faces Extradition

By Patrick Goodenough | March 7, 2008 | 7:18pm EST

( - He has been tied to bloody conflicts from the Balkans to Africa to Southeast Asia, but it may be Viktor Bout's willingness to aid Colombia's left-wing FARC that proves to be the undoing of the notorious arms dealer.

Following the 41-year-old Russian's arrest in Thailand Thursday, the U.S. is seeking his extradition to face charges of conspiring to sell weapons to terrorists.

The head of Thailand's crime suppression office, Gen. Pongpat Chayapan, said a Thai arrest warrant was based on a warrant issued in the U.S. at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), adding that Bout would likely be deported to the U.S.

Reports from Latin America said the arrest was made possible because of information recovered from a laptop computer belonging to FARC number two, Raul Reyes, whose death during a March 1 Colombian cross-border raid into Ecuadorian territory sparked a regional diplomatic furor.

But that version does not square with a previously sealed criminal complaint, released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice, which outlined a DEA sting operation that began last November and succeeded in luring Bout from the safety of Russia for a purported meeting in Thailand.

It said two "confidential sources" working with the DEA had posed as FARC representatives interested in buying weaponry. They held a series of meetings with a Bout associate, Andrew Smulian. On Feb. 25, they set up a meeting to seal the deal with Bout in Bangkok, and he was arrested on Thursday, the day of that meeting.

Bout, who is the subject of a U.N. travel ban, apparently traveled from Russia to Thailand several days ago. (The complaint said other possible meeting places that had been discussed earlier included Cuba, Nicaragua and Armenia.)

In New York, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia and DEA acting administrator Michele Leonhart announced the unsealing of charges against Bout and Smulian for conspiring to sell weapons to FARC, a designated foreign terrorist organization. Smulian also reportedly was arrested in Thailand.

A DOJ statement said the two had agreed to sell FARC millions of dollars' worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missile systems, helicopters and armor-piercing rocket launchers.

The U.S. is seeking Bout's extradition from Thailand. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 15 years' imprisonment.

"DEA and our partners now have this terrorist supporter in custody where he can no longer ply his deadly trade," said Leonhart. "This arms trafficker was poised to arm a narco-terrorist organization, but he now faces justice in the United States."

Garcia and Leonhart thanked law enforcement agencies in Romania, Denmark and the Netherlands Antilles, where meetings between the undercover operatives and Smulian had taken place -- and had been recorded.

Douglas Farah, co-author of a 2007 book on Bout, wrote on his blog Thursday that the arms dealer had over 15 years worked with a long list of "serial human rights abusers."

They included former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, now facing trial in The Hague for war crimes arising out of Sierra Leone's bloody 10-year civil war that ended in 2002; Sierra Leonean rebel leader Foday Sankoh, who died in 2003 while awaiting trial for crimes against humanity; and several Congolese leaders.

Farah said Bout aircraft in the late 1990s parachuted about 10,000 AK47 assault rifles to members of FARC.

FARC has been fighting against Colombian governments for four decades, in a campaign financed by drug-running and characterized by the seizing of hundreds of hostages.

The complaint against Bout calls FARC "the world's largest supplier of cocaine" and says that in response to U.S. contributions to Colombia's anti-drug efforts the group has kidnapped and murdered Americans. Three American contract workers kidnapped by FARC in 2003, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, remain in captivity.

Published reports over the years have also linked Bout, who owns dozens of transport aircraft, to conflicts in the Balkans, where he is suspected of providing weapons to Bosnian Muslims in 1992, as well as the southern Philippines and Chechnya. In a radio interview in Moscow in 2002, he denied reports of links with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In 2002, an international arrest warrant was issued for his arrest.

Although Bout has been based in Moscow, where he has reportedly lived openly, Russia has also expressed interest in extraditing him, according to a RIA Novosti report citing an unnamed law enforcement official in Moscow.

Farah said if he was sent to Russia, that "would be the end of any trial."

The Moscow Times reported Friday that "Russian authorities have not shown much interest in arresting Bout, who gave interviews at the Moscow offices of Ekho Moskvy radio and the Izvestia newspaper not long after the international warrant was issued [in 2002]."

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