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African war crimes court would also consider trying alleged Russian arms dealer
And the possibility has arisen that others may also seek custody of 41-year-old Viktor Bout, especially in Africa, where his suspected flouting of U.N. arms embargoes allegedly fueled grisly wars in places such as Sierra Leone, Uganda, Congo and Liberia.
Bout was arrested Thursday at a hotel in the Thai capital, Bangkok, where he had come _ according to U.S. officials _ to finalize a deal to sell and transport weapons, including portable surface-to-air missiles, to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
But the multimillion dollar deal he thought he had with the Colombian rebels was really the culmination of an elaborate four-month sting operation concocted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and his customers turned out to be undercover U.S. agents, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. considers the cocaine-trafficking leftist rebels, who have been fighting Colombia's government for more than 40 years, a terrorist group. Bout and associate Andrew Smulian, still at large, face U.S. charges of «conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Handcuffed and expressionless, the burly Russian was paraded before journalists Friday at a Thai police news conference but refused to answer questions.
The U.S. is seeking Bout's extradition, but for now he will remain in Thailand, where authorities are investigating if he used the country as a base to negotiate a weapons deal with terrorists, Thai police Lt. Gen. Adisorn Nontree said.
Bout would face 10 years' imprisonment on the Thai charges and 15 years in the U.S.
The timing of any extradition still has to be worked out with Thai authorities, Thomas Pasquarello, DEA's regional director, said at the news conference.
Regarded as one of the world's most wanted arms traffickers, Bout's alleged list of customers since the early 1990s includes African dictators and warlords, including Charles Taylor of Liberia, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
The courts prosecuting the brutal war crimes that have taken place in West and Central Africa in the last decade and a half might also like to get hold of him.
«Would we like to get our hands on Bout? Very much. When we deal with these crimes against humanity, these atrocities against civilians, obviously there are rebel forces, political leaders that are responsible and those are the people we are currently prosecuting,» Stephen Rapp, chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, said Friday.
«But individuals like Viktor Bout are also responsible and it's important that they also face justice. It is frankly a question I often get in outreach around Sierra Leone: 'Why aren't you prosecuting the Viktor Bouts of the world' Rapp said he would have a good case against Bout for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sierra Leone, based upon him having made arms shipments on behalf of Charles Taylor and for the brutal Revolutionary United Front. He said weapons were delivered into the war zone «at the time they were conducting operations with names like 'No living thing,' and being paid for those shipments with diamonds dug by slave labor.
A U.N. travel ban imposed on Bout said he supported former Liberian President Taylor's regime in efforts to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds, which became known as «blood diamonds» for the warring they inspired.
In October 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush issued an executive order freezing the assets of Bout and several associates and warlords in Congo and barring Americans from doing business with them.
They were accused of violating international laws involving targeting of children or violating a ban on sales of military equipment to Congo, and Bout had been under similar sanctions since 2004.
According to the DEA's compliant against Bout, his partner Smulian acknowledged to one of the undercover agents that Bout was unwelcome in most countries and couldn't easily cross borders because of the U.N. ban.
He also said that all Bout's assets, worth a claimed US$6 billion (€3.9 billion), had been frozen by financial authorities.
Bout's business, centered around a fleet of transport aircraft owned and operated by several closely held companies, also reportedly involved him in supplying warring parties in Afghanistan before the 2001 fall of the Taliban.
One of his companies also served as a subcontractor involved in transporting U.S. military personnel and private U.S. contractors in Iraq, according to a book about Bout by journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun published last year.
Although several of Bout's colleagues say he no longer does arms trafficking and is simply a Moscow-based businessman, there is some evidence to the contrary.
A U.N. commission in charge of monitoring the arms embargo on Somalia later determined that the plane had delivered 200 shoulder-fired rockets to the radical Islamic group from Eritrea.
Bout is believed to have used a fleet of planes and contacts from his days in the Soviet Air Force to buy weapons in formerly communist Eastern Europe and deliver them to rebel groups around the world.
He is generally believed to have been a model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie «Lord of War.
U.S. authorities tipped off Thai authorities Monday that Bout was expected to arrive to complete the FARC arms deal and a Thai court issued an arrest warrant the next day, Thai police Lt. Gen. Adisorn said.
Bout arrived from Moscow on Thursday morning and checked into a luxury hotel in downtown Bangkok. Within hours, nearly two dozen Thai police and U.S. law enforcement agents poured into the hotel and apprehended him, said police Col. Petcharat Sengchai. He did not resist arrest.
AP reporters Mike Corder in Brussels and Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.