Thailand extradites 'Merchant of Death' to US
Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was flown out of Thailand Tuesday on a special jet to face trial in the United States, bringing to an end months of legal wrangling over his extradition.
The 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot has been fighting extradition on terrorism charges since his March 2008 arrest after a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels.
"Bout already left Thai soil at 1:27 pm (0627 GMT) from Don Mueang airport," Colonel Supisarn Bhakdinarunart, commander of Thailand's Crime Suppression Division, told AFP.
"He left on a US jet escorted by six officials," Supisarn said. "I myself sent him off. The next destination of the flight is secret but its final destination is the US," he said.
Bout's sudden departure came shortly after the Thai cabinet approved his handover in a move likely to prompt further fury from Moscow which had vowed to do all it could to bring Bout home.
He was escorted by police from Bang Kwang maximum security prison in a convoy of police cars with their sirens blaring.
Bout's wife Alla was waiting outside but did not have a chance to see her husband immediately before he left.
The inspiration for the Hollywood film "Lord of War", Bout is accused of using a fleet of cargo planes to deliver arms in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
A Thai appeals court in August ordered the Russian to be handed over to the United States on terrorism charges, prompting Washington to send a special jet to collect him.
But on that occasion the plane was left waiting on the tarmac after the process was held up by technicalities over new accusations of money-laundering and fraud filed by the United States in an attempt to strengthen its case.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had said he would take the final decision on whether to extradite Bout, whose nickname the "Merchant of Death" was coined by a former British government minister.
Bout has maintained his innocence from the day he was detained in the Thai capital after allegedly agreeing to supply surface-to-air missiles in a series of covert meetings that also took him to Denmark and Romania.
He has repeatedly denied suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and maintains that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.
Washington, which has described Bout as "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers," has lobbied hard for his extradition. The case has put Thailand in a difficult diplomatic spot between the United States and Russia.
A furious Moscow has said the extradition attempt is politically motivated and vowed "to do everything necessary" to bring Bout home, sparking speculation that he may have knowledge of sensitive information.
Tawin Pleansri, secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council, expressed confidence there would be no rift with Moscow.
"This decision will not create a problem with Russia because our foreign ministry has already talked with Russia," he told reporters. "It's our decision, no matter whether Russia agrees or not.
Bout, who speaks six languages and has used at least seven separate identities, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.
Washington alleges that the arms he has sold or brokered have fuelled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
The US embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on the case.
© 2010 AFP