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Thailand Nabs Russian "Merchant Of Death"

A suspected Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" was arrested Thursday in Bangkok on allegations that he supplied Colombian rebels with arms and explosives, Thai police said.

Police Lt. Gen. Pongpat Chayapan, head of the Crime Suppression Bureau, said Viktor Bout was arrested in a hotel in the capital, Bangkok, on a warrant issued by a Thai court following a monthlong manhunt. The warrant came out of an earlier one issued by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman congratulated Thai police for the arrest but could not provide details about the role Americans played in it.

U.S. and Thai authorities said Friday the two countries were still sorting out whether suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout will face trial in Thailand or be immediately extradited to the United States.

"We do intend to extradite him," Thomas Pasquarello, regional director of the DEA, said in a news conference. But the timing still has "to be worked out between the two nations."

Bout has long been accused of breaking U.N. embargoes by supplying weapons to conflicts in Africa, and is the subject of financial sanctions by the United States and a U.N. travel ban.

Police Col. Petcharat Sengchai told reporters that Bout was wanted on charges of "procuring weapons and explosives for Colombian rebels" known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The leftist FARC has been fighting Colombia's government for more than four decades, and funds itself largely through the cocaine trade and kidnapping for ransom.

Handcuffed and wearing an orange polo shirt, the burly, 41-year-old Bout was presented briefly to reporters at Thai police headquarters. He stared blankly at the bank of television cameras but did not make any comment.

Although Bout has been investigated by police in several countries, he has never been prosecuted for arms dealing.

He has been accused of trafficking weapons through a series of front companies to war-wracked Central and West Africa since the early 1990s. U.N. reports say he set up a network of more than 50 aircraft around the world, owned by small, tightly controlled companies including Bukavu Aviation Transport, Business Air Services and Great Lakes Business Co.

Trade experts have said illicit diamond trading was likely one source of funds for his smuggled arms shipments.

A 2007 book about Bout, "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible," says a plane in Bout's fleet made several airdrops of weapons to FARC guerrillas between December 1998 and April 1999.

The book, by journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, says the flights dropped about 10,000 weapons to the rebels, "enabling them to greatly enhance their military capabilities."

A 2005 report by the human rights group Amnesty International described Bout as "the most prominent foreign businessman" involved in trafficking arms to U.N.-embargoed destinations in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and other countries.

The report implicated Bout in transferring "very large quantities of arms" from Ukraine that were delivered to Uganda via Tanzania aboard a Greek-registered cargo ship.

A U.N. travel ban imposed on Bout that was still current as of last November said he supported former Liberian President Charles Taylor's regime in efforts to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds.

In October 2006, President Bush issued an executive order freezing the assets of Bout and several associates and warlords in Congo and barring Americans from doing business with them. They were accused of violating international laws involving targeting of children or violating a ban on sales of military equipment to Congo.

The U.N. imposed an arms embargo in 2003 on the provinces of North and South Kivu and the Ituri regions of eastern Congo, and also on groups that were not part of that year's peace agreement for the region.

Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategies and Technologies, described Bout as a rich "adventurist, one of these guys who emerged at the start of the 1990s and started pumping weapons from the former Soviet Union into Africa."

"He is not in the same league as people who make and trade weapons," he said. "He was influential and rich, but only in these vacated markets where countries were under embargo and state intermediaries didn't dare to sell."

Bout was widely believed to be a model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War."

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