Thailand to extradite 'Merchant of Death'
Thailand on Tuesday approved the extradition of an alleged Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" to the United States on terrorism charges after months of legal wrangling.
Viktor Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest after a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels.
The Thai government's move is likely to prompt further fury from Moscow which has vowed it will do all it can to bring Bout home.
"The cabinet has approved the extradition of Bout," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters. "He will be extradited whenever the US is ready.
"The Thai foreign ministry has already worked out the details with the relevant agencies."
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 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.
Abhisit has 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.
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 say whether Washington had sent another jet to take him away.
"We do not discuss pending extradition cases," said spokeswoman Kristin Kneedler.
© 2010 AFP