Russia warns against US meddling in Thailand-Bout case

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Russia said it was counting on the Thai judiciary's independence to handle alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout's US extradition objectively, and warned Washington against meddling in the case.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also denied any "trade-off" between Washington and Moscow on the Russian national, the so-called "Merchant of Death", whom the United States wants extradited on terrorism charges.

"We have no intention of interfering in the affairs of (Thai) justice and we are counting on the fact that others will not try to influence it," Russian news agencies late Tuesday quoted Lavrov as saying.

Thailand's Criminal Court, citing insufficient evidence, Tuesday dismissed proceedings surrounding new charges against Bout for alleged money-laundering and fraud. That removed a major obstacle to his US extradition.

Welcoming the ruling, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said: "We look forward to having Viktor Bout in a prison near us very soon."

Lavrov said he hoped that US messages to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who could have a final say on whether to send him to the United States, would not influence Bout's fate.

He also rejected any deal between Russia and the United States on Bout, who is said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage.

"The idea that Russia and the United States have reached some sort of agreement is outside the pale of the system of justice," he said.

Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot, was arrested in 2008 after a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as rebels from Colombia's FARC rebels, considered a terrorist group by Washington.

He has repeatedly denied suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and maintains that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.

He 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.

The case has put Thailand in a difficult diplomatic spot between key ally the United States and Russia, which has strongly opposed extradition.

A furious Moscow previously said the extradition attempt was politically motivated and vowed "to do everything necessary" to bring Bout home, sparking speculation that Bout may have knowledge of sensitive information.

© 2010 AFP

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