NEW YORK — A Russian labeled the "Merchant of Death" by those who claim he fueled some of the world's deadly Third World conflicts over the last decade with powerful weapons has arrived in the United States. He faces charges he supported terrorists trying to overthrow the government of Colombia and shared their hatred for Americans.
Viktor Bout arrived late Tuesday at Westchester County Airport, in White Plains, N.Y., before he was brought to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan to await an initial court appearance expected Wednesday afternoon. A news conference with federal prosecutors and officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration was to occur in late morning.
Bout, 43, a former Soviet military officer and air cargo executive, was flown from Bangkok, Thailand, to suburban New York on a chartered U.S. plane just four days before an extradition order would have expired, permitting him to be freed and returned home to his native Moscow.
Instead, he was taken in manacles and a bulletproof vest as Russian diplomats made a final outraged push to persuade Thailand to release him, according to current and former U.S. officials.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Bout was considered "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers."
"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."
For several months, U.S. and Russian officials had battled for control of Bout, flexing muscles in a manner that seemed to threaten cooperation on arms control, nuclear weapons curbs and the war in Afghanistan.
In one high-profile meeting in Hanoi last month, a former U.S. officials said, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Russia's cooperation on anti-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan might be curtailed unless Bout was freed.
Lavrov said in remarks broadcast on Russian television Tuesday that the Thai government's decision was "an example of glaring injustice."
President Barack Obama's administration insisted its efforts to rebuild relations with Moscow could weather any turbulence caused by Bout's extradition. Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged possible "ripples" in relations with Moscow but added that any concerns could be managed.
That confidence could be tested as early as Saturday, when Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev attend a Russia-NATO meeting in Lisbon, Portugal.
An indictment filed in federal court in Manhattan labels Bout an international weapons trafficker who assembled a fleet of cargo planes to transport weapons and military equipment to various failed states and to insurgents in Third World countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East from the 1990s until his arrest in Bangkok in March 2008.
Estimated to be worth $6 billion, Bout had remained in a Thai jail as his supporters fought to prevent him from landing in U.S. custody. Bout insists he's a legitimate businessman.
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."
After Bout was hustled from a Thai prison to a waiting jet early Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry branded the extradition "unlawful," prompted by "unprecedented political pressure from the USA."
Several U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents accompanied Bout, who wore a bulletproof vest over a blue track suit. His wife, Alla Bout, had rushed to the prison with his Thai lawyer but was unable to see him before his departure.
The United Nations has accused Bout of being responsible since at least 2000 for playing a critical role in arming a number of international conflicts in areas where the weapons trade has been embargoed by the United Nations.
In March 2004, the U.N. Security Council Committee imposed travel restrictions on Bout, saying he supported efforts to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds. Three months later, the committee also acted to freeze his assets.
Bout has been accused of supplying weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients ranging from Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to the Taliban government that once ran Afghanistan. He was an inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War."
His arrest came at a Bangkok luxury hotel after a DEA sting operation using informants who posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.
Bout was charged with conspiracy, accused of agreeing to smuggle missiles and rocket launchers to the FARC, and conspiring to kill U.S. officers or employees. If convicted, he could face a maximum penalty of life in prison and a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.
Successful U.S. prosecution could set a precedent for bringing other international crime kingpin suspects to trial, showing "that we would not tolerate international scofflaws," said Juan C. Zarate, a former top Bush administration national security adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Law enforcement experts say his prosecution would be built around the federal agents' extensive use of informants and judicially approved international wiretaps — as well as Bout's own history as a transporter of arms and other cargos.
"It's going to be damning, especially the wiretaps," said Michael A. Braun, a former top DEA official and now managing partner of the Spectre Group International security firm. "The guy is not going to be able to say he didn't say these things because it's all down on tape."
According to court papers, the wiretaps capture Bout saying that the FARC's fight against America was also his fight and that he would supply the group with 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 firearms, unmanned aerial vehicles and ultralight airplanes which could be outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles.
The papers said he told two confidential sources working with the DEA that he would sell them weapons to be used to attack U.S. helicopters in Colombia.
The case is similar to one built to bring down a notorious Syrian-born arms dealer — Monzer al-Kassar. Convicted in New York in 2007, al-Kassar was recorded telling undercover DEA agents that he thought were FARC representatives that he shared their hatred of the United States. Al-Kassar was sentenced in February 2009 to 30 years in prison at the age of 63.
Steve Braun reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok, Vladimir Isachenkov and Yelena Yegorova in Moscow and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.