Image: Viktor Bout
Apichart Weerawong  /  AP
Alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout answers a question inside the detention room at a criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, in August.
updated 11/16/2010 10:53:50 PM ET 2010-11-17T03:53:50

Thailand's extradition to the U.S. of a Russian businessman accused of running a worldwide arms trafficking operation was blasted in Moscow on Tuesday as "unlawful" and the result of "unprecedented" political pressure by Washington.

Viktor Bout's fate after his 2008 arrest in Bangkok fueled a long legal battle between the two former Cold War rivals over whether he should stand trial in the U.S. or be sent home. Russia maintains Bout, who had led a lucrative air transport empire, is a legitimate businessman.

On Tuesday, the Thai Cabinet officially acknowledged the U.S. extradition request, clearing the last hurdle, and police said the 43-year-old Russian boarded a plane in Bangkok at about 1:30 p.m. (1:30 a.m. ET) in the custody of eight U.S. officials. Bout arrived in New York about 10:50 p.m. ET.

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

U.S. federal prosecutors planned a news conference for late Wednesday morning in New York City.

'Interference'
"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 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.

Russia on Tuesday insisted that Bout have access to its diplomats upon his arrival in the U.S.

"We demand that Bout be immediately provided with consulate access. He is a Russian citizen and is entitled to all rights that any Russian citizen in trouble and in such a situation is supposed to have and which must be respected," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax news service on Tuesday.

For its part, the Obama administration was bracing for the Russian backlash, but U.S. officials hope the reset in relations with Moscow can weather the storm.

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State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday that Bout's extradition would likely create "ripples" in ties. But Crowley stressed that the overall U.S.-Russia relationship is mature and any concerns about the Bout case can be "managed."

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

Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, is reputed to have been one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008 as part of a sting operation led by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

U.S. sting operation
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."

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.

Asked if he was worried that the relations with Russia would be affected, 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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