BANGKOK — Thailand extradited accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout to the U.S. on Tuesday to face terrorism charges, siding with Washington in a tug of war with Moscow over whether to send him to stand trial or let him go home.
The Cabinet approved Bout's extradition Tuesday after a long legal battle, and police said the 43-year-old was put aboard a plane in Bangkok heading for the United States at about 1:30 p.m. (0630 GMT; 1:30 a.m. EST) in the custody of eight U.S. officials.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said his Cabinet had approved extradition after acknowledging an earlier appeals court decision that Bout could be legally extradited.
Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who is reputed to have been one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, was arrested at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008 as part of a sting operation led by U.S. agents.
Bout has allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides in Angola's civil war.
The head of a lucrative air transport empire, Bout had long evaded U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at blocking his financial activities and restricting his travel. He claims he ran a legitimate business and never sold weapons, and fought hard to avoid extradition.
"This is an unequivocally political decision, lobbied by the U.S. government," Bout's wife Alla said in Bangkok, according to televised remarks on Russia's NTV network. "It has no legal basis whatsoever."
Russia had made strong public statements against Bout's extradition, and privately, both Moscow and Washington were reported to be exerting heavy pressure on Abhisit's government. U.S lawmakers also became involved, sending a letter to the Thai government urging extradition.
Russia says Bout is an innocent businessman and wants him in Moscow. Experts say Bout has knowledge of Russia's military and intelligence operations and that Moscow does not want him going on trial in the United States.
Neither Russian nor U.S. authorities were immediately available for comment.
The extradition came just a few days before a deadline that might have let him walk free. The same Thai court that last month gave the final go-ahead for his extradition also had declared that Bout had to be extradited before Nov. 20, or else be released.
A Thai court in August of 2009 originally rejected Washington's request for Bout's extradition on terrorism-related charges. After that ruling was reversed by an appeals court in August this year, the U.S. moved to get him out quickly, sending a special plane to stand by.
However, just ahead of the appeals court ruling, the United States forwarded new money-laundering and wire fraud charges to Thailand in an attempt to keep Bout detained if the court ordered his release. But the move backfired and caused a new delay, and only an early October court ruling cleared the final path to extradition.
Associated Press writer Yelena Yegorova in Moscow contributed to this report.