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‘Merchant of Death’ arrested over arms deals

A Russian suspected arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" was arrested Thursday in Bangkok.
Thai police escort Russian suspected arms dealer Viktor Bout following his arrest in Bangkok on Thursday.
Thai police escort Russian suspected arms dealer Viktor Bout following his arrest in Bangkok on Thursday.Str / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A Russian businessman dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for supplying weapons for bloody conflicts in Africa was arrested in Thailand on Thursday for allegedly conspiring to smuggle guns to Colombia's powerful left-wing guerrillas.

Viktor Bout, 41, was arrested at U.S. request at his hotel in Bangkok, said police Lt. Gen. Pongpat Chayapan, head of the Crime Suppression Bureau.

Bout was generally believed to be a model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War."

Pongpat said police executed a warrant from a Thai court, based on a warrant issued in the United States at the request of 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 FARC has been fighting Colombia's government for more than four decades, and funds itself largely through the cocaine trade and kidnapping for ransom.

He said six other people, including another Russian, who were with Bout were also detained for interrogation. Thai police received information from the DEA that Bout and another man came to Thailand around January to do an arms deal with a Latin American rebel group, he added.

Thai police Col. Petcharat Sengchai said a second suspect identified as Andrew Smulian was also being sought.

A law enforcement official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said there was no link between Bout's arrest and the weekend capture by Colombian troops of a computer belonging to a top FARC leader who was killed in a raid on one of the guerrillas' bases in Ecuador.

The DEA complaint filed in New York federal court said Bout's arrest stemmed from a sting operation over several months in which DEA agents posing as FARC rebels negotiated with Bout for the purchase and delivery of millions of dollars (euros) of armaments and surface-to-air missiles.

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

Bout's business, centered around a fleet of transport aircraft owned and operated by several closely held companies, also reportedly involved him in supplying warring parties in Afghanistan before the 2001 fall of the Taliban.

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 2007 book about Bout, "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible," also says that 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."

Bout has been investigated by police in several countries, but has never been prosecuted for arms dealing.

“The indictment is really important in making the grey market weapons market most costly and difficult because Viktor Bout is unique in that he could provide the weapons cheaply, transport them to their places where they’re being used and come up with the necessary papers," said Douglas Farah, who wrote the book with Stephen Braun. “No one else has the network Viktor Bout had.”

Bout’s most notorious arms dealing took place in west Africa, according to diplomats and intelligence officials in that region.

“He was one of the biggest if not the biggest arms dealer in West Africa,” said Joseph Melrose, the U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone from 1998 to 2001 and now a professor at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Penn.

During the civil wars that devastated Liberia and Sierra Leone, Melrose said, Bout would ship material through Burkino Faso and Chad to the rebels operating in Liberia and Sierra Leone. “There were always shipments coming in.”

Melrose described what he said was Bout’s standard operating procedure. “The arms suppliers would claim they had a valid end user permit from Burkino Faso (a neighboring west African nation), but we knew where it was going. Weapons were coming into Burkino, then to Liberia and over the border into Sierra Leone. Burkino totally denied it.”

Melrose said Bout’s companies would openly advertise in air freight magazines.

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 he 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 Co.

A U.N. travel ban imposed on Bout that was still current as of last November said he supported former Liberian President Charles Taylor's regime in efforts to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds, which became known as "blood diamonds" for the warring they inspired.

In October 2006, U.S. President George W. 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. Bout had been under similar sanctions since 2004.

A U.S. Treasury sanctions announcement in 2005 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 accused of conducting atrocities against civilians.

"In exchange for these supplies, Bout received payment from Liberia's international ship registry as well as diamonds and other valuable commodities acquired illegally by Taylor's associates and the RUF," it said.

Liberia's maritime registry provides a "flag of convenience" for shipping companies the world over, and is a major legitimate source of revenue for the country.

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

Bout won his nickname in November 2000, when Peter Hain, then Britain's Cabinet minister for African affairs, called him "the chief sanctions-buster" flouting U.N. arms embargoes against warring parties in Angola and Sierra Leone and dubbed him "a merchant of death."

Bout is believed to have served in an air transport outfit of the Russian military until about 1991. He built his business on the huge drawdown of weapons and aircraft in the communist Eastern bloc as the Cold War was coming to a close.

A 2005 report by the human rights group Amnesty International said Bout was "the most prominent foreign businessman" involved in trafficking arms to U.N.-embargoed destinations from Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and other countries.

The report 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, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-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 2002 report. "In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he explored investment opportunities in agriculture and telecommunications and expressed interest in promoting conservation of the country's national parks."

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."

"He is not in the same league as people who make and trade weapons," he said. "He was influential and rich, but only in these vacated markets where countries were under embargo and state intermediaries didn't dare to sell."