One of the world's most notorious arms dealers, Russian national Viktor Bout, arrested in Thailand Thursday, had a long history of arms dealing in West and Central Africa. U.S. agents say he also operated in Latin America and Afghanistan. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.
U.S authorities say they want Russian national Viktor Bout extradited to the United States. His arrest in Bangkok came after an eight-month sting operation by U.S. agents of an alleged attempt to supply Colombian rebels with weapons and explosives.
Michael J. Garcia, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said it was, in his words, the end of the reign of one of the world's most wanted arms traffickers.
"He was apprehended in the final stages of managing the sale of millions of dollars of high-powered weapons to people he believed to represent a known terrorist organization, the FARC," he explained.
Authorities in Thailand said their prosecutors have not decided yet if Bout will first face trial in Thailand.
Bout's lawyer, Viktor Bouborine, said the arrest was unacceptable, and that he will insist that Bout is released and sent back to Russia.
In 2006, Bout appeared on an English-language program of Russian television. Through an English translator, he denied any wrongdoing.
"Every time, the same story, the same repetition. I even could call it a witch hunt," he said. "They have tried to accuse me since 1998 for all kind of alleged operations in Africa, but since that, even with all the powers of the American administration, CIA, FBI and all means like satellites, and this they were not able to come back with a certain proof."
The portly, mustachioed former Soviet military officer, speaks many languages including the southern African language Zulu, and allegedly operates dozens of Antonov cargo planes from a base in the United Arab Emirates.
He is believed to have been the inspiration for a 2005 Hollywood movie starring U.S. actor Nicolas Cage, called Lord of War. He was put under U.N. sanctions for flying weapons and ammunition through Liberia to other African countries.
One of those who studied the case, Alex Vines, is a former member of the United Nations panel of experts for Liberia.
"Mr. Bout had got celebrity status. We had all written about him. I think history will show that his role was a bit exaggerated in Africa," he noted. "Yes, he was a successful air transportation broker and had made good money in the 1990s and the beginning part of this millennium. But there are many other people who have not had this sort of attention that he did. Part of the contribution to his downfall is the spotlight on him. He basically became too famous and that reduced his choices in a business that prefers discretion and working in the twilight."
Vines says Bout remained active on the continent even after West African civil wars ended.
"After the wars in West Africa and the early part of this millennium, the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2003, also the end of the civil war in Liberia, the market for Viktor Bout-type operations inside West Africa contracted," he added. "There is some evidence that he continued in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a little bit. He had been moving up where there had been conflicts. His footprint was in Angola, the DRC, he had operated a base out of an airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, and as I said had been involved in Liberia and Sierra Leone."
In recent years, security experts say Bout was active in flying weapons to militants in Iraq and Afghanistan. In many countries, such as Angola, he is reported to have supplied arms and ammunitions to both sides of conflicts.