'Merchant of Death' arrested in Thailand

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'Merchant of Death' arrested in Thailand

Post by Guest on Sun 09 Mar 2008, 10:26 am



The world's most notorious arms dealer has been arrested in Thailand, after fuelling many of the most deadly recent conflicts and running rings around investigators for nearly two decades.

Bout handcuffed in a police station in Bangkok
He is variously known as Vadim Aminov, Victor Balukin, Viktor Butt, "The Embargo Buster," and "The Merchant of Death," but the real name of the burly 41-year-old Russian, briefly paraded in handcuffs, is Viktor Bout.

He was seized by Thai police acting for United States Justice Department agents in a Bangkok hotel room. He was allegedly attempting "to procure weapons for Colombia's Farc rebels".

Justice Department officials announced that he had been charged with conspiring to sell millions of dollars in illegal arms to Farc. They will seek his extradition.

Bout built his extraordinary business empire on elaborate obfuscation, the ability to get anything to anywhere and complete immorality.

According to Lee Wolosky, formerly of the United States National Security Council: "He had a logistics network, the best in the world.

"There are lot of people who can deliver arms to Africa or Afghanistan, but you can count on one hand those who can deliver major weapons systems rapidly. Viktor Bout is at the top of that list."

Bout was probably born in the Soviet Union in 1967, although it is not clear where. He trained in the military - some have suggested in the KGB - and speaks at least six languages fluently.

He cut his first deal aged 25 when the Soviet Union collapsed and he spotted a business opportunity, buying three dilapidated Antonov cargo planes from the air force for 60,000.

He found plenty of buyers in Africa for the huge surplus of weaponry left over by the Soviet army.

By constantly reregistering his ever-growing fleet of planes in different jurisdictions and under different names, he evaded Western intelligence agencies for years.

Among Bout's clients was Charles Taylor, the Liberian dictator now on trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone, where he allegedly sowed chaos to control the supply of blood diamonds he used to buy the guns.

In their book Merchant of Death, the American journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun laid bare much of Bout's operation. It was not just guns Bout delivered. He flew frozen chickens from South Africa to Nigeria and Belgian peace keepers to Somalia.

His planes delivered French soldiers to Rwanda after the genocide and United Nations food aid to some of the crises his weapons had helped to create.

One of his most profitable operations, he told an interviewer in 2003, was shipping fresh-cut gladioli from South Africa, where he bought them for 1 each, to Dubai, where he sold them for 50. He shifted them 20 tons at a time.

In 1997 his planes flew Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of the Congo, to safety as rebels closed in on him. Bout had armed the rebels.

He supplied Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, and then added their enemies in the Taliban to his client list.

By the end of the 1990s Western intelligence had realised that the common factor in many of Africa's wars was Viktor Bout and his fleet of Antonovs. He retreated to a luxury apartment in Moscow where he was safe from extradition.

In an interview with the New York Times he explained his love of Africa and the life he led on its jungle airstrips.

"In the middle of nowhere you feel alive, you feel part of nature," he said. "What I really want to do now is take one of my helicopters to the Russian arctic and make wildlife films for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel."

He claimed to make contributions to the children's charity Unicef. Guns don't kill people, he explained, it is the people who use them.

The subject of American arrest warrants and a freeze on his assets, he continued to run rings around his pursuers.

After America invaded Iraq in 2003 there was a great demand for airfreight companies. In the confusion, Bout's airlines won contracts. "By the summer," wrote Farah and Braun, "Antanovs were roaring into Bagdhad's cratered airport carrying everything from tents and video players to armoured cars and refurbished Kalashnikovs."

Bout got a contract with Federal Express, the courier company. Before long - to intense official embarrassment later - he was carrying equipment for the US air force and army, and personnel and machinery for Halliburton, the American multi-national corporation.

Just as when a drug baron is removed, experts believe that there are many more ready to fill his shoes.

Provided By: Telegraph - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/07/warms107.xml

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