An alleged Russian arms trafficker who was dubbed the "merchant of death" and inspired the Nicholas Cage thriller "Lord of War" was extradited to the United States on Tuesday to face terrorism charges, Thailand's government announced.
Viktor Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who allegedly became one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, was put on an American-bound plane about 1:30 p.m. Bangkok time, officials said.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters that Thai legislators supported an earlier court decision that Bout could be extradited as soon as the U.S. was ready to receive him.
Bout, 43, was arrested in March 2008 in Bangkok as part of a joint U.S.-Thai sting operation in which agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
He has since been held in a Thai maximum security prison and has fought extradition to the U.S. His detention was due to expire within days.
The case has caused diplomatic tensions between Washington and Moscow, which insists that Bout is an innocent businessman facing a politically motivated extradition and that he has no chance of a fair trial in the U.S.
But U.S. prosecutors tell a different story. Since the 1990s, they allege, Bout supplied weapons that have been used in civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients reportedly included Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and rebels in Angola's civil war.
Bout "augmented his arms brokerage with conflict diamonds, frozen fish, cut flowers," shipping these items back to Europe in aircraft cargo holds after weapons were delivered to a particular conflict zone, experts say.
According to some accounts, Bout may have armed the Taliban and its Northern Alliance enemies in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks. According to others, he supplied the U.S. military in Iraq via a front company.
On Tuesday, a wire service photographer said, dozens of policemen and masked commandos guarded the entrance of Bangkok's maximum-security Bangkwang prison, apparently waiting to take him to an air force base for a flight out.
A Bangkok Criminal Court in October dismissed money-laundering and wire fraud charges against Bout that probably would have delayed extradition further.
Thailand has been a key U.S. ally and enjoys strong exports to the United States, but officials say they exerted no pressure for Thailand to give up Bout, saying rather that the Southeast Asian nation has been hampered by limited resources.