Russia outraged over Thai decision to extradite accused arms dealer to U.S.
BANGKOK - Thailand extradited an alleged arms dealer to the United States on Tuesday, drawing anger from Russia, which claimed the action was illegal.
Viktor Bout was arrested in a Bangkok hotel in March 2008 after allegedly offering to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to U.S. agents posing as members of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the Colombian guerrilla group.
The former Soviet air force officer was escorted aboard a U.S. aircraft at Bangkok's Don Muang airport by armed police and U.S. agents. On arrival in the United States, he will face charges of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, conspiracy to acquire an anti-aircraft missile and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist group.
Bout, 43, has maintained his innocence, claiming he was framed by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"This is an unequivocally political decision, lobbied for by the U.S. government," Alla Bout, his wife, told Russia's NTV network Tuesday. "It has no legal basis whatsoever."
Bout has been accused of providing arms to several governments, including the administration of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who is on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity, and Afghanistan's Taliban.
He is said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War," and a British politician once dubbed him the "merchant of death."
Bout never denied that he ran a cargo airline, using underutilized Soviet-era aircraft, that flew to the scenes of some of Africa's most bitter conflicts, but he has described it as a legitimate operation that carried valid end-user certificates when it did transport arms. The case became a diplomatic tug of war between the United States, which wanted to try him for aiding terrorists, and Russia, which said that Bout was a legitimate businessman.
Bout operated freely out of Russia for years and is thought to have cultivated ties with the top ranks of Russia's military intelligence. Moscow lobbied hard against his extradition, and intelligence analysts say they think Russia might fear what Bout could reveal under questioning by U.S. authorities.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said the extradition was illegal. "We have no doubt that the illegal extradition of Viktor Bout is a result of the unprecedented pressure the U.S. brought on the Thai government and legal system," the ministry said.
The Russian Embassy in Bangkok complained that Thai authorities had not told them the extradition was proceeding.
Bout won the first round of his battle to avoid extradition in August 2009 when a Thai court ruled that the case was politically motivated and that he had committed no crime on Thai soil. However, prosecutors won an appeal in August.
Belton reported from Moscow.