A Russian businessman regarded by the United States as one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers was arrested in Thailand on Thursday as part of an American-led sting operation. He was promptly charged in the United States with conspiracy for attempting to smuggle missiles and rocket launchers to rebels in Colombia.
The businessman, Viktor Bout, 41, is suspected of supplying weapons to the Taliban and al-Qaida and of pouring huge arms shipments into Africa’s civil wars with his own private air fleet. He was arrested by the Thai authorities at a hotel in Bangkok in an operation in which undercover investigators posing as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, sought to purchase millions of dollars in arms.
Federal prosecutors in New York said they would seek the extradition of Bout (pronounced boot) and an associate, Andrew Smulian, who was also arrested in Bangkok on Thursday, to stand trial in the United States on a charge of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Although American officials said Thailand appeared to be eager to be rid of Bout, it was not known when he would be brought to the United States.
Michael J. Garcia, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that Bout “was apprehended in the final stages of arranging the sale of millions of dollars of high-powered weapons to people he believed represent a known terrorist organization, the FARC.”
The FARC is a leftist insurgency that has been fighting Colombia’s government for decades and is believed to finance its activities in part through cocaine trafficking. The FARC has been identified in the U.S. criminal code as a foreign terrorist group and aiding such a group is a crime.
The arrest was set in motion by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which alerted the Thai authorities that Bout was traveling to Thailand, said Police Col. Petcharat Sengchai of the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, who led the arresting team.A criminal complaint unsealed in Manhattan said the plans for a meeting with Bout in Thailand had taken shape after earlier meetings, most of them conducted by Smulian, with informants posing as FARC members in the Netherlands Antilles, Denmark, and Romania. The conversations were secretly recorded by drug enforcement agents. The actual size of the deal was not made clear from the documents released by the government, but the complaint indicated that Bout planned to charge a $5 million delivery fee to transport the surface-to-air missiles and armor piercing rocket launchers to South America.
American officials have long publicly identified Bout as a rogue weapons smuggler who profited mainly from arms dealing that fueled bloody conflicts in Africa. He was said to have built a shadowy network of air cargo companies in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and the United States.