NEW YORK — Russian arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout was flown from Bangkok to New York on Tuesday in a chartered U.S. plane, extradited in manacles to face terrorism charges despite a final outraged push by Russian diplomats to persuade Thailand to release him, American authorities said.
Bout's extradition followed a bruising diplomatic tug-of-war between the U.S. and Russia that shows no sign of letting up and could jeopardize cooperation on arms control, nuclear weapons curbs and the war in Afghanistan.
A former Soviet military officer and air cargo executive nicknamed the Merchant of Death by critics, Bout (pronounced boot) had been accused of arming failed states and insurgents across the Third World since the 1990s.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Bout was considered "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers" and stood accused of "conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to a terrorist organization for use in trying to kill Americans."
"Viktor Bout has been indicted in the United States, but his alleged arms trafficking activity and support of armed conflicts in Africa has been a cause of concern around the world," Holder said in a statement. "His extradition is a victory for the rule of law worldwide."
Thailand's government ordered Bout placed in American custody Tuesday, 20 months after his March 2008 arrest in a sting operation led by U.S. narcotics agents. Since then, the wealthy businessman — estimated by the U.S. to be worth $6 billion — had been in a Thai jail.
Bout arrived late Tuesday night at the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, U.S. attorney's office spokeswoman Edeli Rivera said.
Bout, wearing handcuffs and looking calm when he got off the plane, was given a helmet to wear before being put in an armored vehicle with about five other people. He then was driven from Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City, to downtown Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center.
The MCC has housed the likes of Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff and Gambino crime family scion John "Junior" Gotti and terrorism defendants including blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was sentenced to life in prison for plotting to blow up five New York landmarks and assassinate Egypt's president.
In Moscow, Bout's lawyer and brother voiced alarm that American officials would pressure him into incriminating himself or others. The attorney, Viktor Burobin, said the U.S. had already offered Bout better treatment in custody in exchange for his cooperation. And Sergei Bout, a key figure in his brother's global air cargo empire, warned that the U.S. would "make some kind of injections to get whatever they want out of him."
Bout, who says he's a legitimate businessman, faces U.S. charges accusing him of having a gunrunning empire — a prosecution that American officials describe as a milestone in international efforts to cripple the flow of illicit weapons that fuel conflicts around the world.
The U.S. Department of Justice said an indictment charges Bout with four terrorism offenses: conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, conspiracy to kill U.S. officers or employees, conspiracy to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile and conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted with strong words after Bout was hustled from a Thai prison to a waiting jet early Tuesday. Russia branded the extradition "unlawful," prompted by "unprecedented political pressure from the USA."
Thai police commandoes, clad in combat gear and masked by balaclavas, accompanied Bout to the tarmac at Bangkok's Don Muang airport. There, several Westerners wearing U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration jackets shepherded him onto the chartered jet.
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