The long hunt for a man regarded as one of the world's most notorious arms dealers climaxed Thursday in Bangkok, Thailand, where an eight-month sting operation by a team of U.S. agents led to the capture and arrest of Russian businessman Viktor Bout during an alleged attempt to supply Colombian rebels with weapons and explosives.
Bout was taken into custody by Thai police at a luxury hotel in Bangkok, where, U.S. officials said, he was waiting to complete a weapons deal in which he expected to earn as much as $15 million for delivering surface-to-air missiles, attack helicopters and other weaponry.
U.S. authorities said they would move quickly to secure Bout's extradition. But his controversial role in supplying the American military effort in Iraq and possible Russian interest in returning him to Moscow could complicate efforts to put him on trial in New York, said former officials who had pursued him in recent years.
Bout was targeted in a high-stakes inquiry led by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents who used informants to lure an associate of the Russian to a flurry of meetings on Caribbean islands and in Copenhagen and Bucharest, Romania, federal investigators said. The pursuit concluded Thursday morning when Bout was baited into appearing at the Sofitel Silom hotel in Bangkok.
Bout's enterprises have been linked to the arming of warlords and dictators in Africa, fanning the flames of civil wars throughout the 1990s.
Authorities allege that his companies helped arm the Taliban in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, and sold them a dozen cargo planes. Then he managed to switch sides, they say, aiding U.S. military reconstruction efforts in Iraq by staffing hundreds of supply flights to Baghdad.
Despite an indictment by Belgian authorities and investigations by American officials and United Nations arms experts, Bout has repeatedly eluded manhunts while building a global arms and air transport empire that stretched from Moscow to the Dallas suburbs.
Michael J. Garcia, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Thursday in unsealing a criminal complaint against Bout and an alleged accomplice that American officials would press for Bout's extradition. Bout faces charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
The arrest of Bout, known among his pursuers as "the merchant of death," is a milestone in the halting efforts by U.S., U.N. and other international authorities to stem the global arms trade and pursue suspected transnational criminals. His arrest "marks the end of the reign of one of the world's most wanted arms traffickers," Garcia said.
But Bout's role in aiding the Bush administration's reconstruction effort in Iraq poses thorny hurdles to any effort to construct a legal case against him. A public trial, which would most likely be held in the federal courthouse in Manhattan, could lead to uncomfortable revelations for the administration about Bout's business relationships with U.S. military agencies and private contractors.
"An American trial would be interesting because a lot of the Bush engagement with Bout will come out," said Witney Schneidman, a former assistant secretary of State who pressed for foreign support in pursuing Bout at the end of the Clinton administration.
The U.S. extradition push may be rivaled by a similar request by the Russian government. A Russian news agency reported Thursday that government officials in Moscow were mulling over their own extradition request. Yevgeniy Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said: "These reports are in the Russian media, but I don't have official confirmation. I won't speculate."
Lee S. Wolosky, a former National Security Council deputy who led the effort against Bout for the Clinton and Bush administrations, warned that Bout "really needs to come into U.S. custody quickly. Otherwise, there's ample opportunity for others to mess around."
Bout has long been protected by the Kremlin administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bout was indicted by a Belgian court on massive money-laundering charges in 2002, and a worldwide notice for his arrest was circulated by Interpol. But Russia, which is an Interpol member, declined to turn Bout over to Belgium, citing constitutional protections and casting doubt on the evidence against him.
Videos and photographs taken Thursday in a Bangkok police holding area showed a stocky, rumpled Bout in an orange prison-issue jumpsuit, glowering and manacled as he was questioned by authorities. A U.S. official involved in the operation said Bout had said almost nothing since his arrest Thursday morning.
"He's as close-mouthed as he is in the pictures," the official said.
According to a 14-page criminal complaint and accounts provided by several U.S. officials on condition of anonymity because the case is still unfolding, Bout was captured by a strike force of federal narcotics agents experienced in targeting international fugitives. The team was aided by Treasury officials and U.S. intelligence, the officials said.
The team first targeted Andrew Smulian, a Bout associate who was arrested along with the Russian on Thursday. According to an affidavit filed by DEA Special Agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, Smulian was approached in mid-2007 by a confidential informant working for the U.S. Smulian had previously aided Bout in making airdrops of armaments over the volatile Russian republic of Chechnya, the official said.
The informant and a second undercover operative began a series of meetings with Smulian that led from the Caribbean island of Curacao to elsewhere in the Netherlands Antilles and early this year to Copenhagen and Bucharest.
Conversations were intercepted and recorded by American and Romanian authorities. By late January, Bout was on the phone with Smulian, cinching final arrangements, according to the affidavit.
At one point, it said, Bout promised to show up for a Romanian meeting. "100 percent, 100 percent sure!" he promised Smulian. "Wait for me max 10 days. I am there."
But Bout did not turn up until he was assured by one of the DEA informants that an official from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia known as El Comandante had approved a $5-million payment for covert airdrops of the weaponry, the affidavit said. The cache was to include 100 armor-piercing Igla surface-to-air missiles of Bulgarian origin, it said.
Bout, who is reported to be 41, had a meteoric rise in the international air cargo trade. He built a private air force of more than 60 planes, most of them durable Russian aircraft, and set up hubs in the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Belgium and several Eastern European countries.
U.N. investigators linked his organization to several African civil wars of the 1990s, during which they say it provided arms to warlords in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.