WASHINGTON — If Russian Viktor Bout starts talking to U.S. prosecutors, the man accused of supplying the weapons for civil wars on three continents could raise the roof in Moscow and Washington.
A tug-of-war between the two powers has played out largely in public over Bout, dubbed "the Merchant of Death" in 2000 by a minister in Britain's Foreign Office. On Friday, an appeals court in Bangkok ordered his extradition within three months to the United States, where he faces criminal charges that could put him in prison for life.
An arms trafficker who assembles a fleet of cast-off Russian cargo planes and operates a transcontinental network for over a decade wouldn't have stayed alive, much less thrived, unless he had the blessing and support of influential Russian officials, said people in and out of government who have watched his operations.
Bout has even made money off those who said they wanted to put him out of business — the U.S. government and the United Nations. He ignored sanctions by both, while counting as customers the U.S. military in Iraq and U.N. aid programs.
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The Russians "wanted him back because he's linked to Russian intelligence," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif. "He lived in the open in Russia despite an Interpol arrest warrant" from a Belgian money-laundering case.
But the Russians say it's just about international politics.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the Thai court decision "unlawful and political." Without mentioning the United States, he said the ruling was influenced by "very strong outside pressure."
Bout is alleged to have supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.