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Extradition battle over Viktor Bout

28 August 10 11:26 GMT

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Thailand

A court in Thailand has ruled that the Russian Viktor Bout - suspected of being one of the world's most notorious arms dealers - be extradited to the US. But arguments involving the US and Russia mean he is still in Bangkok, as Thailand does its best not to upset two important allies.

The small private jet has been sitting on the tarmac at a Bangkok airport all week now - with the meter running.

It was hired by the US government and arrived on Monday to pick up valuable cargo, as did the 50 armed men sent to make sure the goods - Viktor Anatoliyevich Bout - made it safely from maximum security prison to American soil.

But there was a snag, a last-minute hitch, a technicality.

Viktor Bout knows quite a bit about aircraft and he also knows a lot about paperwork and bureaucracy.

He ran a logistics business, flying Soviet-era transport planes around the globe.

Those who accuse him of being the world's most notorious arms dealer say the cargo he delivered was UN-sanction-busting guns, his buyers were rebel armies: that he fuelled civil wars across Africa in the 1990s.

'Merchant of death'

They say the nimble way this big, imposing Russian switched flight plans, ownership documents and inventories enabled him to exploit loopholes in the law and avoid the authorities for more than a decade.

Until he was lured to Bangkok with an offer he seemingly could not refuse.

Despite the shackles and chains, he was certainly light on his feet hopping out of a prison bus and into a Thai courtroom for his latest - and some thought final - appearance.

But then he is used to it. Two and a half years he has spent in prison here, going to and from court, fighting extradition, after US agents posing as Colombian Farc rebels arrested him at a Bangkok hotel, after he allegedly tried to sell them weapons.

Not just AK-47s or Kalashnikovs but hundreds of surface-to-air missiles and heavily armed attack helicopters.

That is what is on the charge sheet and that is the case the Americans want him to answer - conspiracy to provide arms to a group Washington considers "terrorists".

The allegations against a man once described as the "merchant of death" by a British politician have been piling up for years.

They come from UN weapons investigators, intelligence agencies, governments and investigative reporters, but Bout denies them all.

He was rumoured to have half a dozen passports and many more aliases.

This version of his shadowy life is said to have inspired the Nicholas Cage character in the movie Lord of War.

Cold War

What is complicated is his relationship with the Kremlin and the Pentagon.

As a former Russian air force officer, his contacts are strong. He is accused of buying arms from the state as the Soviet Union collapsed.

He not only took supplies into Iraq for the Americans, he also flew to Kosovo for the British Ministry of Defence.

While Viktor Bout has been sitting in the dock - looking a little thinner on each appearance - the courtroom scene has been a throwback to the Cold War, as Russian and American officials have huddled with their lawyers in different corners eyeing each other suspiciously and playing tug of war with Viktor.

Russia is perhaps worried he might turn state witness, and there may be some secrets they would rather not have him spill.

The US wants to see him on trial.

And this is not a game confined to the court - the two nations are lobbying hard behind the scenes.

Thailand has found itself in the middle of a battle between two of its allies, wanting to do the Thai thing and keep everyone happy.

The first court ruling last year was "Advantage: Moscow". Extradition was rejected.

But a week ago, came the appeal.

'Advantage Viktor'

America lodged two new charges including money laundering and fraud as an insurance policy, in case he got off.

But judges ruled he should be extradited within three months. "Game, set and match: US of A".

Officials in court punched the air.

And so they sent a plane.

The Russian foreign minister called it "unjust", and said it could affect relations with Thailand.

Mr Bout's wife blamed American pressure but his Thai lawyer secretly celebrated.

"God saved us," he grinned, with his knowledge of the legal system here.

Those new charges have to be dropped before America can have him.

Viktor Bout now wants the money laundering and fraud charges to come to court because, if that case can be dragged out for three months, the extradition order will expire and a two-and- a-half-year process will have to start all over again.

And from the Thais' perspective, if Mr Bout stays in prison here. they will not be upsetting one big ally any more than the other.

Advantage Mr Bout.

If he is the world's most notorious arms dealer, he will have some very big friends in some very high places.

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