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U.S., Russia face off over alleged arms trafficker

A Thai appeals court rules that Russian suspected arms smuggler Viktor Bout can be extradited to the United States to face terrorism charges.

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By Pete Yost and Steve Braun
Monday, August 23, 2010

Oh, the stories this Russian could tell!

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If Viktor Bout starts talking to U.S. prosecutors, the man accused of supplying the weapons for civil wars on three continents could raise the roof in Moscow and Washington.

A tug of war between the two powers has played out largely in public over Bout, dubbed "the Merchant of Death" in 2000 by a minister in Britain's Foreign Office. On Friday, an appeals court in Bangkok ordered his extradition within three months to the United States, where he faces criminal charges that could put him in prison for life.

An arms trafficker who assembles a fleet of castoff Russian cargo planes and operates a transcontinental network for over a decade would not have stayed alive, much less thrived, unless he had the blessing and support of influential Russian officials, said people in and out of government who have watched his operations from afar.

Bout has even made money off those who said they wanted to put him out of business: the U.S. government and the United Nations. He ignored sanctions by both, while counting as customers the U.S. military in Iraq and U.N. aid programs.

And now?

The Russians "wanted him back because he's linked to Russian intelligence," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). "He lived in the open in Russia despite an Interpol arrest warrant" from a Belgian money-laundering case.

Russia says it is just about international politics. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the court's decision "unlawful and political." Without mentioning the United States, he said "very strong outside pressure" influenced the ruling.

Juan Zarate, a senior counterterrorism official in President George W. Bush's administration, said the Russians are pushing hard over the issue of sovereignty.

"They don't like the fact that one of their citizens, especially one who's so prominent and notorious, is facing charges in the United States," said Zarate, who green-lighted a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation that led to Bout's arrest in Thailand.

'Deep connections' with Russia

Zarate also pointed to Bout's "deep connections with the Russian establishment for some time." Zarate said that "perhaps some of those people are nervous about what he knows and what he might say if he lands in a courtroom in New York."

Royce, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, assessed the verdict in the Thai court this way: "It's a big loss for every terror group that's tried to employ him in the past, from the Taliban to Hezbollah to al-Shabab."

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