Alleged Russian Arms Dealer Extradited To U.S.

The alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — dubbed "The Merchant of Death" — has been extradited to the United States from Thailand over Moscow's objections. The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, says it can work through the diplomatic problems.

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The man known as the merchant of death is coming to America. Thailand has extradited alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, to face terrorism charges here in the U.S. Washington and Moscow had long been in a tug of war over his legal fate.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the first battle in that war ended today, as Thai guards put Viktor Bout on a plane for New York.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Viktor Bout was picked up in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation in Bangkok more than two years ago. And U.S. diplomats have been working hard in recent months to get him on U.S. soil. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was furious with the news today about Bout's extradition.

Mr. SERGEI LAVROV (Russian Foreign Minister): (Speaking Russian)

KELEMEN: I consider this the result of unprecedented political pressure on the judicial system and the government of Thailand, he said in comments carried on Russian television today, adding, this is an example of a glaring injustice. Russia says Viktor Bout is just a businessman and Moscow will protect his rights and follow the case closely.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says Bout's extradition was fully consistent with international law and he doesn't expect this case to hurt U.S.-Russian ties.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): We agree to disagree sometimes. We have tensions that crop up periodically and we work to manage those. I don't expect that this will have any impact on our relationship.

KELEMEN: The Russians may be worried about what Bout might say in open court in the U.S., though, according to Lee Wolosky, a New York lawyer and a former White House counterterrorism official.

Mr. LEE WOLOSKY (Lawyer): He clearly has a very deep network in and involving Russia. His aircraft are Russian. His arms, for the most part, that he delivered, were Russian. And he relied on a network of Russian official and semi-official sources and operations to really operate his own organization.

KELEMEN: There was also a point in the war in Iraq when U.S. officials discovered that Bout's companies were helping U.S. subcontractors deliver supplies in Baghdad. Wolosky says Bout ran a logistics operation larger than most nations have and was ready to work with anyone willing to buy, including, he says, the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Mr. WOLOSKY: That's what made him unique and it's what made him quite dangerous to U.S. interests.

KELEMEN: The former Soviet air force officer is said to have gotten his start in Africa, as the Soviet Union as collapsing. Wolosky was on President Clinton's staff when Viktor Bout's alleged business dealings first caught U.S. attention.

Mr. WOLOSKY: We discovered at the National Security Council that he was supplying arms to virtually every conflict that President Clinton was trying to resolve in Africa and he was frequently supplying arms to both sides of those conflicts.

KELEMEN: Viktor Bout allegedly expanded to other continents and U.S. officials say he was finally caught when he was offering to sell weapons to DEA agents posing as members of the Columbian rebel group the FARC. That's expected to be the basis of the court case against him in New York.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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