The worldwide crackdown on the al-Qaida terrorist network and the hunt for its leader, Osama bin Laden, has stirred investigative interest in a shadowy Russian arms dealer known for his sales to rebels in Africa.
He is not as well known nor as badly wanted as Osama bin Laden. But U.S. officials are now calling Victor Bout "a person of special interest" - particularly in light of fresh intelligence information linking him to clandestine arms deals with the Taleban and possibly with al-Qaida.
These officials tell VOA they have no compelling evidence of direct ties between Mr. Bout and al-Qaida. But they say he has definitely dealt with figures associated with the terrorist group. Pentagon sources also say his name has shown up on documents discovered in Afghanistan in recent weeks in connection with the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
According to intelligence data obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, a private, non-partisan U.S. watchdog group, Mr. Bout earned an estimated $50 million in profits from arms sales to the Taleban in the late 1990s. The Center says, and U.S. sources concur, that any weapons shipped to the Taleban could have been funneled to al-Qaida.
A further report in The Los Angeles Times newspaper says a man now in Belgian custody has specifically accused Mr. Bout of also having business dealings with al-Qaida.
The secret arms transfers are understood to have been carried out using aircraft owned by Mr. Bout and operating out of the emirate of Sharjah, part of the United Arab Emirates.
These are the same aircraft identified in years of gunrunning to such strife-torn African states as Angola, the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone. British officials have dubbed him "Africa's chief merchant of death."
Mr. Bout's present whereabouts are uncertain. United Nations investigators who have documented his African arms dealings say he was born in Tajikistan in 1967. He has several aliases and is known to have at least five passports, two of them Russian and one Ukrainian.