Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer accused by both the UN and Amnesty International of flouting embargos, was arrested at a five-star hotel in central Bangkok March 6. Thai authorities issued the warrant based on information from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). A former KGB officer, Bout allegedly sold arms to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Colombia’s FARC rebels and warring sides in several African conflicts. Russia and the US are both seeking his extradition.
Bout’s activities were chronicled in a book, Merchant of Death, by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, and he was also the reported inspiration for a 2005 film, Lord of War, in which he was played by Nicholas Cage. The book claimed that planes from the Bout’s fleet made several airdrops of weapons to the FARC between December 1998 and April 1999.
According to a US Treasury Department statement on Bout’s activities, he built up his arms empire after the collapse of the USSR, acquiring a fleet of surplus or obsolete planes.
“Today, Bout has the capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tonnes to virtually any point in the world,” the statement reads. “The arms he has sold or brokered has helped fuel conflicts and support UN sanctioned regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.”
The US government claims he made a $50 million profit supplying military equipment to the Taliban in Afghanistan before the regime was overthrown.
A mythology grew up around Bout in the 1990s, but in 2002 he appeared abruptly on a Moscow’s Ekho Moskvy News Radio, insisting that he was innocent and saying the accusations against him “resemble more a script for a Hollywood thriller.”
“I can say only one thing: I have never supplied or done anything, and I have never been in contact with either Taliban representatives or Al Qaeda representatives,” Bout said.
The US charges against Bout stem from a sting operation in which undercover DEA agents posing as FARC representatives secured a deal from him and associate Andrew Smulian to supply millions of dollars worth of weapons, including surface to air missile systems and armor piercing rocket launchers. (The Guardian, NYT, March 6)
Note that the DEA used the same trick against Monzer al-Kassar.