BANGKOK–A Russian dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for allegedly supplying weapons to Africa's bloody conflicts over power and diamonds was arrested yesterday in Thailand on suspicion of conspiring to smuggle guns to Colombia's leftist rebels.
Viktor Bout, 41, a former Soviet air force officer whose dealings reportedly inspired a 2005 movie about the illicit arms trade, was arrested at U.S. request in his hotel room in Bangkok, said police Lt.-Gen. Pongpat Chayapan.
Bout had eluded arrest for years and was finally seized after a four-month sting organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
In New York, federal authorities unsealed a criminal complaint charging Bout conspired to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons – including 100 surface-to-air missiles and armour-piercing rockets – which he thought were going to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The leftist group, which has been fighting Colombia's government for more than four decades, is listed by the United States as a terror group.
Bout and an associate, Andrew Smulian, were charged with "conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization."
Thai police Col. Petcharat Sengchai said Smulian was still being sought.
Bout, who has never before been prosecuted for arms selling despite investigations in several countries, has always denied being involved in illicit deals.
The criminal complaint in New York said confidential sources directed by the DEA posed as FARC members while negotiating from November to February to buy arms from Bout.
Noting that lengthy investigation, a law enforcement official in Washington said there was no link between Bout's arrest and the weekend seizure by Colombian troops of a top FARC leader's laptop computer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
In New York, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia would not say how much the weapons involved in the alleged deal were worth, but said the cost of transporting them alone was set at $5 million.
He said the weapons were to be parachuted to FARC fighters in Colombian territory.
The arrest "marks the end of the reign of one of the world's most wanted arms traffickers," Garcia said.
Bout allegedly built his contacts in the post-Soviet arms industry into a business dealing arms to combatants in conflicts around the world. He is generally believed to have been a model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie, Lord of War.
Bout's best-documented activities have been in Central and West Africa, where he has been accused of funnelling weapons into various civil wars since the early 1990s.
In 2000, Peter Hain, then Britain's cabinet minister for African affairs, called Bout "the chief sanctions-buster" flouting UN arms embargoes on the warring parties in Angola and Sierra Leone, dubbing him "a merchant of death."
His list of alleged customers in Africa includes former dictator Charles Taylor of Liberia and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Bout also reportedly supplied arms to warring Afghanistan parties before the fall of the Taliban.