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Australia arrests U.S. man tied to Viktor Bout

NEW YORK An associate of a notorious Russian arms dealer was arrested in Australia and charged with conspiring to buy planes so that weapons could be transported to the world's bloodiest conflicts, a U.S. prosecutor announced Thursday.

Syrian-born American Richard Ammar Chichakli was arrested Wednesday at the request of U.S. authorities on charges that he conspired with Russian arms merchant Viktor Bout and others to try to buy the planes from two U.S. companies.

Viktor Bout: "The Merchant of Death"

His arrest was first confirmed by the Australian Fairfax Media news organization, which reported Thursday that he was arrested in Melbourne after applying for a post in the government Protective Service Office, a law enforcement agency. The news service reported that he said nothing during a Thursday hearing at the Melbourne Magistrates Court.

A lawyer for Chichakli told officials that his client had identified himself as Jehad Almustafa. Chichakli was held pending the processing of a U.S. extradition request.

Victoria state police spokeswoman Jessica Rosewarne confirmed Chichakli was caught after applying for the government post.

"He was identified as a person of interest through routine background checks as part of the application process," she said. "He had not been offered employment with Victoria police or started any training."

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the chief federal prosecutor in New York, said Chichakli "consorted with the world's most notorious arms trafficker in the purchase of aircraft that would be used to transport weapons to some of the world's bloodiest conflict zones, in violation of international sanctions."

Michele M. Leonhart, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the international law enforcement community has long recognized Chichakli as a key criminal facilitator in Bout's global weapons trafficking regime.

"His arrest means the world is safer and more secure," she said in a release.

Bout is a former Soviet air officer dubbed the Merchant of Death because of his 1990s-era notoriety for running a fleet of aging Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa. He also inspired the arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War."

Bout, convicted of conspiracy relating to the support of a Colombian terrorist organization, was sentenced in Manhattan last year to 25 years in prison but maintained he was a legitimate businessman.

An indictment against Chichakli in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and other court documents accuse Chichakli of working as a close associate of Bout since at least the mid-1990s to assemble a fleet of cargo planes capable of shipping weapons and military equipment to various parts of the world, including Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Prosecutors say the arms have helped fuel conflicts and support regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

Over the years, Chichakli has weaved a colorful biography of his past but often repudiated his comments under the glare of law enforcement scrutiny.

He has claimed to have befriended a young Osama bin Laden during college days at Riyadh University in Saudi Arabia. He also claimed a stint in the U.S. Army, replete with intelligence training and service in the first Gulf War. And he talked openly of his work for Bout but also minimized his connections.

In a 2010 interview with The Associated Press in Moscow, Chichakli said that the U.S. conspiracy charges against Bout were "lies" and voiced fears that if he went on trial in New York the proceedings would be tainted.

"The U.S. made up this case for one simple reason," he said at the time. "To get to Viktor Bout."

Chichakli said then that he had "never done business with Viktor Bout."

The indictment accuses Chichakli and Bout of violating sanctions by arranging to buy two Boeing aircraft from U.S. companies in 2007. It says they electronically transferred more than $1.7 million through banks in New York and into bank accounts in the U.S., though the money was blocked by the U.S. Department of the Treasury before it reached the aviation companies' accounts.

The Treasury Department had imposed an asset freeze against Chichakli in April 2005 as part of larger financial sanctions aimed at the Bout network's dealings with the dictatorial regime of Liberian President Charles Taylor. The department called Chichakli, who once ran a small conglomerate of Texas-based businesses from a Dallas suburb, "Bout's U.S.-based chief financial officer."

Federal agents raided Chichakli's offices within hours of the sanctions, and the accountant quickly fled the U.S., flying to Cairo and then Moscow using frequent flier miles to help avoid arrest.

Rejoining Bout in Moscow, Chichakli sued to overturn the sanctions against him, challenging Treasury's jurisdiction, but a federal judge ruled in favor of the government in 2008.

If convicted, Chichakli could face up to 20 years in prison on each of nine counts, including conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, money laundering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and wire fraud.

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