"Merchant of Death" faces charges in Thailand, extradition

(dpa) - Thai police on Friday charged Viktor Bout, 41, one of the world's most notorious weapons traffickers who was arrested in Bangkok on Thursday, with arms dealing in Thailand, postponing his anticipated extradition to the United States.

"If he is found guilty of the charge he will spend two to 10 years in jail here," said Police Lieutenant-General Adisorn Nonsri, Commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau.

But other police sources said the charges were expected to be dismissed in court, paving the way for Bout's extradition to the US where he has been charged with conspiracy to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to Colombian rebels, according to the US Justice Department.

"The US has been chasing this man for almost a decade," Adisorn told a press conference.

Acting on a tip-off from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Thai police arrested Bout on Thursday at the Sofitel Silom Hotel in Bangkok hours after he arrived from Moscow.

"We have warrants for Mr Bout and we do intend to extradite him," said Thomas Pasquarello, the Bangkok-based regional director for the DEA. "He's called the Merchant of Death and the Man of War for a reason," Pasquarello told the press conference.

Bout, who has been dubbed as the "Merchant of Death" by a British government official, sat stony faced throughout the press conference, flanked by ten Thai commandos.

Bout was arrested while "discussing business" with five other Russian nationals and one British national in the hotel. The six men who met Bout were released as Thai police found no evidence that they had criminal records, police sources said. 

In Washington, the Justice Department said Bout's arrest was the result of close cooperation between US and Thai authorities. The United States said they would seek his extradition.

Adisorn said he had yet to receive an extradition request from Russia. He added that negotiations on Bout's extradition would need to await the outcome of Thai charges against the Russian.

The charges Bout faces in the US stem from a sting operation in which he and an accomplice allegedly agreed to sell weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is designated a terrorist organization in the United States.

Bout and Andrew Smulian offered to sell and deliver surface-to-air missiles, helicopters and armour-piercing rocket launchers in a series of phone calls and emails to two DEA informants posing as FARC members.

Bout and Smulian were apparently led to Thailand by the informants to close the deal and were arrested by Thai police, the DEA said.

Thai police are hunting for Smulian, said Adisorn.

A former officer in the Soviet army, Bout has since become one of the most notorious arms dealers in the world, accused of selling weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Bout has denied the past charges.

Bout and Smulian face up to 15 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. The charges were unsealed Thursday in a New York federal court.

US Attorney Michael J Garcia in a press conference said the arrest ended "the reign of one of the world's most wanted arms traffickers."

"Viktor Bout and Andrew Smulian agreed to arm terrorists with high-powered weapons that have fueled some of the most violent conflicts in recent memory," Garcia said.

The 2005 movie Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage, was supposedly inspired by Bout, and the 2007 book Merchant of Death - Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible is an expose of his life.

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