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."
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