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Page last updated at 02:10 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Trapping the 'Merchant of Death'

By Nick Davidson
Director, This World

Viktor Bout at the Crime Court in Bangkok
Mr Bout's lawyer argues he will not receive a fair trial in the US

Viktor Bout, the man accused by Western governments of being the world's biggest arms dealer, has been held in a Bangkok jail since March, with the threat of extradition to the US hanging over his head.

After more than 15 years of allegedly running guns to African warlords and Islamic militants he was arrested in Thailand after an elaborate sting organised by US agents.

A former member of the Russian military, Mr Bout has always proclaimed his innocence.

He has been fighting to be returned to his native Russia, where he is widely thought to be the victim of American entrapment.

But Western governments, led by the US, are pressing the Thai authorities to extradite him to Washington where he will face charges of planning to supply arms to a terrorist organisation.

'Funding thugs'

Victor Bout emerged from the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s as the owner of an airfreight business with a reputation for flying almost anything anywhere.

The Man Who Armed The World
Monday, 17 November, 2008

He had, according to Western intelligence sources, a lucrative sideline in weapons bought from a cash-strapped Red Army.

By the late 1990s UN reports were documenting evidence of Mr Bout supplying arms to rebel forces in Sudan, Rwanda, the Congo, Angola and Sierra Leone, all in defiance of UN embargos.

Witney Schneidman, an Africa expert in the US State Department who tracked Mr Bout's activities, told the BBC that Mr Bout would often supply weapons to both sides of the same conflict.

I think there were a lot of people around the world that didn't have an immediate interest in taking Viktor Bout out of the equation
Gayle Smith
Center for American Progress

"In the architecture of war Viktor Bout was kind of like the glue", says Gayle Smith, who was Senior Director for African Affairs at the US National Security Council in the late 1990s.

"He moved people in and out (of countries), he moved money in and out, he moved arms in and out… and it didn't matter to him if he was funding predatory movements, if he was funding thugs, if he was facilitating rape and murder," she adds.

Often, she says, he was paid in so-called blood diamonds.

It was Peter Hain, then Africa minister at the UK Foreign Office, who publicly denounced Mr Bout in the House of Commons as a "Merchant of Death".

Farc members during a military practice in La Macarena, southern Colombia (file photo)
Mr Bout is alleged to have arranged delivery of weapons to Farc rebels

He said: "The more I read about Bout, the more intelligence and evidence that I saw, it was clear-cut, that he was a serious merchant of death right the way through the Great Lakes area, Angola and of course Sierra Leone."

Too useful

US officials say he also supplied arms to the Taleban in Afghanistan and the Farc guerrillas in Colombia.

Yet despite an Interpol warrant for his arrest and several attempts to detain him, Mr Bout repeatedly slipped through the net, including an attempt by British agents to arrest him in Athens.

"I was informed about it and it nearly happened but he wasn't on the plane, so that was terribly frustrating," Mr Hain recalls.

It was Weapons R Us - anything we needed he was willing to provide

Tom Pasquerallo, Head of the DEA's SE Asia Bureau

The ease with which Mr Bout managed to avoid the authorities may, according to some observers, have been partly due to the fact that he was simply too useful to too many people, including a number of Western governments.

In the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mr Bout flew supplies for the Americans into Baghdad. When this was exposed US officials claimed it was a mistake, but Mr Bout's company was one of the few willing to fly into a war zone.

His planes also flew from RAF stations in Britain to Kosovo. The Ministry of Defence later apologised, saying they had no knowledge the planes were linked to Mr Bout.

Viktor Bout in West Africa
Mr Bout is also accused of supplying arms to rebels in West Africa

"I think there were a lot of people around the world that didn't have an immediate interest in taking Viktor Bout out of the equation because he'd worked for a whole lot of people all over the earth," Gayle Smith says.

He became so notorious that his story inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage film, Lord Of War.

But this very notoriety may also have been his undoing. A man who preferred to work in the shadows, he had become too public.

Soon after his "Hollywood debut" the US Treasury seized his cargo planes and froze his assets, which is said to have cost him some $6 billion (£4 billion).

Caught 'red-handed'

His capture earlier this year came after the US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) was given the green light to pursue him.

Posing as members of the Colombian Farc, DEA agents set up a sting in the hope that he would agree to sell weapons to a group designated a "terrorist organisation" by Washington.

"I can tell you that almost everyone told us first of all we'd never pull this off, " DEA head of special operations Mike Braun says.

DEA agents held a series of meetings with Mr Bout's representative which started on the Caribbean island of Curacao in the Dutch Antilles, moving to Denmark and finally Romania.

Tom Pasquerallo talks to This World about Viktor Bout's arrest in Bangkok

It was hoped Mr Bout would come to Bucharest in person to sign an armaments deal that included Hinde helicopter gunships, drone aircraft and the latest surface-to-air missiles, worth, in all, around $15 million.

But, Mr Braun told the BBC, there was a hitch.

Mr Bout was prevented from entering the country by the Romanian authorities because of previous document violations.

In a last ditch attempt to salvage the operation Bangkok was suggested as an alternative. "The target was willing to travel to Thailand so… the decision became fairly easy," Mr Braun says.

At a hotel in central Bangkok Mr Bout finally provided the DEA with the evidence it needed.

"It was Weapons R Us. Anything we needed he was willing to provide," says Tom Pasquerallo, head of the DEA's SE Asia Bureau and the man who made the final arrest.

"It was business and it really didn't much matter if this was going to be used to kill Americans," he adds.

Five minutes later Mr Bout was arrested. Trapped, according to the DEA, by his own words.

This World: The Man Who Armed The World tells the full, exclusive story of how Viktor Bout was trapped by the DEA on Monday 17 November at 1900 GMT on BBC Two.

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